Image: Hayes Johnson

Over the course of this series, we’ve talked a lot about how to construct Stormtrooper Armor, but we haven’t talked a whole lot about what to do with it once you’re done. You might be itching to throw the costume on and share your love of Star Wars with the world, but there’s some things to consider first.

What got me thinking about this was a news report earlier this week: a man in a Storm Trooper costume was spotted on the side of the road in Newborn, Georgia. The local Sheriff was called, and deputies located him:

According to the incident report, when deputies pulled up, [Justin] Marling had two hands on what they thought was a real weapon. They told him to put the weapon down, but Marling turned away and continued walking. Deputies gave a second command, and it was at that point Marling put the gun down and took a step back.

This is something that scares the daylights out of me: the possibility that engaging in this hobby could put my life in danger.

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I’m part of the 501st Legion, which is a major, international costuming organization. The group has a certain level of name recognition, but also the organizational ability to put together what we call “troops” for events that we are invited to, for a whole host of reasons. We, like other costuming organizations, allow people to use the costumes they spent time, money, and energy putting together, but also issue best practices and have long histories of charitable work.

Late last year, Disney issued some guidance for 501st members looking to troop at any event: for Disney-sanctioned events, there would be absolutely no prop guns allowed. For non-Disney events, it was discouraged. It’s easy to see why: A shooting in San Bernardino had just taken place and the general public was on edge. Other shootings had prompted theaters across the country to restrict costumes and masks.

There’s a whole range of public ordinances and laws that can make this a complicated hobby. Earlier this year, Burlington Vermont rolled back a ban on masks after a group of Furries were booted out of the Church Street Marketplace (the laws had been enacted to combat Ku Klux Klan members from going out in public). In November, Boston banned realistic toy guns in public. Some countries in which the 501st Legion operates bans replica guns altogether.

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Many of the costumes in the 501st have a mask or a prop gun, and it’s up to the user to decide not only if it’s appropriate to be in public, but also to make sure that when they do go out in public, they’re operating within the law.

Image: Andrew Liptak

In December, the entire 501st community was engaged in a larger conversation about this, with some upset about the move to restrict our ability to carry prop weapons, saying that the general public had become too sensitive, and that it’s pretty clear that the carriers aren’t really threatening.

While most people can pick out Darth Vader out of a crowd, there’s a good segment of the population that hasn’t seen the films, and has no idea what we are. People have thought that I’m an astronaut, a robot, some sort of experimental policeman, and a whole bunch of other things. One can’t assume that a pedestrian will see a costumed character and assume that they’re harmless, especially if they’re carrying what appears to be a fake gun. A year ago, someone dressed up as a trooper showed up near a school, prompting a lockdown.

My response to the complaints about not being able to carry prop guns was that these are restrictions that help us. If the general public can’t recognize the costume, you can be sure that a police officer responding to a call won’t take the time. My nightmare scenario is that the call goes through and a rapid response team is dispatched to our trooping location. Stormtrooper helmets aren’t conducive to good sight or hearing. The guy in Georgia is lucky: I’m dreading the day when we hear that someone is shot because they misheard or misunderstood an order.

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The good news is that there’s ways around this. Working closely with an event coordinator at a major event is key. Being in a place where people expect to see costumed characters (sometimes with signs) goes a long way towards making sure people know what they’re looking at. At a convention, nobody will look twice at a Storm Trooper. At a promotional event at a store, they’ll attract attention, but expected attention. Showing up outside of a school, unannounced, or doing some sort of spontaneous thing? That can become complicated, quickly.

The best way to avoid problems is to understand local regulations, make sure that the audience is appropriate and understands what you’re trying to do, and to use your common sense when it comes to appearing in certain places. The point of this hobby is to have fun: not end up in handcuffs, or worse.