Fake cosplay guns, real security problems at Comic Cons

Comic conventions like San Diego Comic-Con are discouraging or banning some costume weapons in light of public violence. How do cosplayers feel about dumping their carefully crafted props?

Bonnie Burton
Journalist Bonnie Burton writes about movies, TV shows, comics, science and robots. She is the author of the books Live or Die: Survival Hacks, Wizarding World: Movie Magic Amazing Artifacts, The Star Wars Craft Book, Girls Against Girls, Draw Star Wars, Planets in Peril and more! E-mail Bonnie.
Bonnie Burton
6 min read
Tania González/CNET

Like many cosplayers, Tim Winn is a stickler for authenticity. When he dresses as Reinhardt from Overwatch, he spends months making sure he gets his giant Rocket Hammer just right. He'd never cosplay as Master Chief from Halo without the soldier's trusty gun. Or as Titan from the video game Destiny without wielding an intimidating firearm. 

But some of that attention to costume detail could be for naught.

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For Tim Winn, seen here as Jaxson from the game Moba Legends, costumes are one of the main reasons to go to a convention. To him, having to leave off a prop feels like a compromise. 

Boston McConnaughey

Due to concerns about the growing number of violent incidents at US public gatherings, like 2017's mass shooting in Las Vegas, the deadliest in modern US history, comic conventions around the country are making sure their strict cosplay weapons regulations are followed by attendees. 

Some conventions are taking their rules a bit further by banning realistic-looking and potentially dangerous prop weapons altogether. And not all cosplayers are happy about it.

"There are some great props that look very real, but if a convention can't check them properly … and instead just blanket-bans everything, they are wasting my time," Winn said. "As a cosplayer, this is what I spent all year doing so that I can show them off at conventions. If they take that away, they've taken one of the reasons to go in the first place."

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Bindi Smalls doesn't mind having to check weapons, especially since she always takes photos of her props before entering a convention. 

Cyberhead Designs

The rules underscore the tension between authenticity and safety, which became a serious issue following the arrest of a man who gained access to Phoenix Comicon armed with loaded handguns, a shotgun, knife, pepper spray and throwing stars. 

For the rest of the convention, organizers banned all weapon props, including those made from foam and cardboard. The man, who was wearing body armor, said he wanted to kill "bad police" at the event.

Denver Comic Con followed suit earlier in June 2017 by banning toy guns. Other prohibited items included blunt weapons such as wooden or metal bats, clubs, brass knuckles, mallets, whips and golf clubs.

A spokesman for San Diego Comic-Con International said it's the event's policy not to discuss security specifics. As of now, the usual costume props guidelines are still in place: Projectile costume props and weapons must be rendered inoperable. Functional (real) arrows must have their tips removed and be bundled and zip-tied to a quiver. And costume swords must be tied to costumes in such a way that they can't be drawn.

"I am happy to check weapons at conventions, and it doesn't bother me very much to have tape or a zip tie on my prop," said cosplayer Bindi Smalls, whose favorite costumes include Tracer Posh Skin from Overwatch and Nova Terra from Starcraft. "I tend to take photos of my props before I wear them, to preserve the memory of their appearance before 'battle damage' from wear and travel."

Jason Burrows, who's been attending conventions for almost 20 years dressed as everything from G.I. Joe Cobra Commander to a Star Wars stormtrooper, isn't torn up about the new restrictions either, even when they prohibit all toy weapons.

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"Back when I started, I'd get very uppity if I wasn't able to bring whatever prop weapons or whatever to complete my costume," he said. "However, now that I've kinda grown out of that, I don't actually mind when they have rules against weapons in total. It's one less thing to haul around the convention. Empty holsters are awkward, but it's really not that big of a deal."

That comic conventions are tightening their security grip shouldn't come as a surprise given the heightened public anxiety on everything from gun violence to terrorist threats and hate speech

No Nazi costumes

New York Comic Con has also added an anti-Nazi clause to its cosplay rules.

"Hate symbols are not permitted at NYCC, including as part of cosplay, and NYCC will not allow costumes that contain hate symbols or appropriate the symbolism of hate groups, including, but not limited to, historical/comic-related/satirical costumes that are associated with Nazis." according to the New York Comic Con FAQ

Tara Hubner, Denver Comic Con marketing and communications manager, sees such steps as an inevitable reflection of the times.  "Unfortunately, we live in a much different world than we did even five years ago, and the comic convention industry is beginning to adjust accordingly," she said. 

Back in 2017, Denver pop culture convention took place at a particularly sensitive time -- after the tragedy at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida that claimed 49 lives and left more than 50 wounded.  

"We heard from many con goers that they wanted to see increased security measures, so we responded," Hubner said. "Part of that response was to disallow realistic prop firearms. Knowing that cosplayers put a lot of time and effort into their costumes, we announced the change in October 2016 ahead of sales to allow as much time as possible for people to be able to adjust."

The National Rifle Association didn't respond to a request for a comment regarding conventions taking stronger security measures concerning gun props.

Crazy for cosplay

For many fans, of course, cosplay is the soul of the convention experience. Cosplayers not only get to show off their talent for costume and prop making, but attendees love taking pictures with people dressed as their favorite superheroes, villains, zombies, elves and vampires.

"A lot of times people literally do not go to the con for any other reason than to parade around in costumes," said Lilith Lenore, who goes by the cosplay name Liliphae and has dressed up as more than 20 characters since she discovered the art in 2014.

Lenore understands why Phoenix Comicon banned all weapons props following a gun threat, but ultimately doesn't see all-out bans as the way to go.  

Nor does Winn.

"I won't go to a convention if they can't be prepared enough to know the difference between a real weapon and a prop weapon," he said.

Taking the edge off 

While Phoenix Comicon's full-on weapons ban was new to the comic convention scene, costume weapons check stands are already the norm there, and at other conventions. Cosplayers carrying weapon props like guns, swords, katanas, spears, hammers, axes, whips, daggers and knives are expected to line up at checkpoints to clear their props with security.

Depending on convention rules, if a weapon looks fake and doesn't appear to pose any danger, it gets a colored tag and continues on with its owner. Security might provide protective wrapping that cosplayers can add to sharp edges on daggers, arrows, spears and other types of props. Or they might request that swords be tied into their scabbards to be on the safe side.

But if a weapon looks too much like a real gun or has the obvious potential to hurt someone, the cosplayer who brought it will most likely have to check the item and leave it behind for the day.

Not everyone sees the logic in that.

"Sure, a Maui cosplayer [from "Moana"] could seriously hurt someone with their huge hook, and a Harley Quinn could hit someone over the head with their giant mallet, but the number of incidents of that happening is insignificant and probably accidental," said Jade Falcon, who cosplays as Shego from the animated TV series Kim Possible and Gogo Tomago from the movie Big Hero 6, among others. "A plastic poster container, a photographer's tripod or a heavy backpack can serve as a blunt instrument to hurt someone just as much as a non-weapon prop. At what point does such a slippery slope end?"

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Oliver Holmes, dressed here as Link from Legend of Zelda, says he's never felt unsafe at a convention due to costumes or costume weapons. 

Isaac Hsieh and Leah Hsieh

Falcon has a point. Just because a weapon prop deemed risky doesn't make it onto the convention floor doesn't mean random attacks by angry fans don't happen.

In 2010, a frustrated fan attending San Diego Comic-Con stabbed another fan with a pen during a confrontation over an empty chair at a crowded panel. In 2014, the weapon of choice was a car, as an impatient driver injured a woman while trying to part a crowd of cosplayers on the street during the annual Comic-Con Zombie Walk.

The occasional violent incident at a con doesn't scare Oliver Holmes, who goes by the cosplay name Kohalu and has donned costumes of about 40 characters over the years. Neither does walking around in a crowd of people brandishing fake guns, oversized hammers and giant swords.

"I have never once felt unsafe at the convention due to weapons, costumes or costume weapons," he said. "Seeing people walk around with 7-foot swords, seemingly bloodstained scythes and all manner of weapons comes with the territory. I wouldn't have it any other way."

First published, July 19. 
Update, Oct. 6, 11:33 a.m. PT: Adds information on New York Comic Con and the Las Vegas shooting.  

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