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Feminist critic forced to cancel lecture after gun threat

Critic Anita Sarkeesian faces death threats after her critique of misogynistic video game culture. How Utah's gun laws made it impossible to assure her safety.
Anita Sarkeesian at The Rusty Quarters Retro Arcade and Museum in Minneapolis, Minn. in Jan. 2013.
Anita Sarkeesian at The Rusty Quarters Retro Arcade and Museum in Minneapolis, Minn. in Jan. 2013.

Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist critic whose work focuses on misogyny in video games and video game culture. For this, she has been driven out of her home by death threats and, as of yesterday, forced to cancel a planned lecture at Utah State University following a threat of mass murder. 

Unfortunately, Utah's gun policies made an existing dangerous situation even more so. 

The email threat, which Sarkeesian posted online, was made by a person claiming to be a student. He evoked a 1989 Montreal case where a man killed fourteen women, claiming to be "fighting feminism."  The email continued, "If you do not cancel her talk, a Montreal Massacre style attack will be carried out against the attendees, as well as students and staff at the nearby Women's Center. I have at my disposal a semi-automatic rifle, multiple pistols, and a collection of pipe bombs. This will be the deadliest school shooting in American history and I'm giving you a chance to stop it." 

Utah State issued a statement on its website explaining why the event was being canceled. 

"Sarkeesian asked if weapons will be permitted at the speaking venue," the university said. "Sarkeesian was informed that, in accordance with the State of Utah law regarding the carrying of firearms, if a person has a valid concealed firearm permit and is carrying a weapon, they are permitted to have it at the venue."

It's not just feminist speakers who are affected by states that have a range of permissive gun laws -- it's women in general. When researchers writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine devised a ranking of states by the number of restrictions they have on gun ownership, Utah got a zero score, for having the most gun-friendly regime of all. (Massachusetts had the most restrictions.) 

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Crucially, women are more likely to be killed in states where more people own guns, which also tend to be states with fewer restrictions on gun ownership. That was the conclusion of two peer-reviewed studies led by Matthew Miller, a professor of health sciences and epidemiology at Northeastern University, who has studied the impact of state gun ownership rates on violence, including violence against women. He noted in an interview with msnbc that about half of Utah's population owns a gun. That figure, drawn from the CDC's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey, is higher than the national rate, which is about one in three.

One study looked at data between 1988 and 1997. The other drew on numbers from 2001 to 2003. They both led to the same conclusion. 

"What we found was that where gun ownership is more prevalent, the risk that a woman would be murdered was higher, even when you take into account the kinds of things that vary from state to state that might be related to the murder rate," he said, such as poverty or urbanization. 

In other words, lax gun policy and gun prevalence take an already volatile and unsafe situation -- and make it worse.