Utah movie theater cancels on Florida school shooting survivors, saying a planned town hall is ‘escalating into a potentially contentious situation’

Cameron Kasky, center, speaks during a news conference, Monday, June 4, 2018, in Parkland, Fla. A day after graduating from high school, a group of Florida school shooting survivors has announced a multistate bus tour to "get young people educated, registered and motivated to vote." (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

A Utah movie theater is pulling out of an agreement to host survivors of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting for a town hall this weekend on gun reform because it “appears to be escalating into a potentially contentious situation.”

Larry H. Miller Megaplex Theatres — part of the Larry H. Miller Group, which also owns car dealerships and the Utah Jazz — withdrew from the contract Wednesday, three days before the Saturday event and less than 24 hours after the student organizers announced that it would be held at the South Jordan location.

“After careful consideration, we have decided to cancel the event at Megaplex because our venues are focused on providing a safe, world-class movie experience for our guests, which include families and children,” the company said in a statement.

The decision comes after a Salt Lake Tribune article detailed how the Utah Gun Exchange has taken its military-style armored vehicle across the country to follow the Florida students on their nationwide road trip and was encouraging its members to attend the event at The District in South Jordan.

“We support important and respectful dialogue on any issue that impacts our community,” the Megaplex Theatres statement continued. “When this event was initially booked, the full context wasn’t fully understood, and now it appears to be escalating into a potentially contentious situation where additional security will be required.”

The company will refund the deposit and promised to “assist in helping the organizer find an appropriate location for this event.”

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who survived the shooting that left 17 people dead in February, were originally going to speak at Salt Lake Community College on Saturday afternoon. The location and time were changed this week after the group said it wouldn’t be able to get there for the 3 p.m. town hall because they were driving from Colorado.

The event was then planned for 6 p.m. at the movie theater. It’s unclear where the town hall, put on by March for Our Lives SLC, the state’s chapter of the national movement focused on protecting students from gun violence, will now be held.

“We are very disappointed but will work together with our partners on this event to accommodate this last-minute change,” said organizer Madalena McNeil. “We are heartbroken and blindsided by this turn of events, and even more so by the inappropriate behavior and intimidation tactics by outside groups that led to these circumstances.”

The students wanted to stage the event inside the district of Republican Rep. Mia Love, who faces a tough midterm bid for re-election and whom they’ve called out for accepting donations from the National Rifle Association. Her district includes just about a third of Salt Lake County, the most liberal area of the state.

“I’m really disappointed that this is what happened,” said Elizabeth Love, a student advocate with March for Our Lives SLC. “I was really excited to have this event.”

“We do look forward to finding a new venue, though” added co-organizer Ermiya Fanaeian. “We’re working closely with the national organization to do that. We’re following their lead.”

It doesn’t appear the Parkland students’ “Road to Change” bus tour has had trouble locking down a venue in any other state.

The Utah students say they have a backup venue in mind — they wouldn’t disclose where — and are just waiting for more direction. They’re confident the town hall will happen despite the cancellation.

While Utah Gun Exchange has had a contentious relationship with the student organizers — including leading a pro-gun protest ahead of the March for Our Lives rally last spring in Salt Lake City — owner Bryan Melchior offered up his warehouse in Sandy for the group to use Saturday at no cost. March for Our Lives SLC declined but thanked the company for its “very best intentions.”

“Nobody is going to cancel on them at our place,” Melchior said. “I don’t know what other option they have at this point.”

Utah Gun Exchange originally had a weapons exchange planned for Saturday. The company rescheduled that when it heard about the student-led panel. It’s unclear if its plans for a counter-rally sparked Megaplex Theatres’ decision to back out.

“Regardless of their intentions,” Fanaeian said, “their tactics intimidate people.”

Melchior, though, is currently following a separate tour of the Parkland survivors as they drive through Florida. He sat down Wednesday with five Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students, who have made it a point during their campaign to start conversations with pro-gun groups and those with different perspectives.

“We’re making good headway, and I think we’re crossing some bridges,” Melchior said about their 25-minute chat. “They’re saying they’re not anti-gun at all. They’re saying that anti-gun violence is their mission. We agreed to continue the dialogue as we continue to travel.”

Florida students David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, Cameron Kasky, Jaclyn Corin and others will speak to attendees and answer questions at the town hall in Utah. Hogg tweeted Wednesday about The Tribune article on Utah Gun Exchange, suggesting that its employees should “just like you know talk to us.”

March for Our Lives advocates for a range of gun reforms, including universal background checks, boosted funding for research on gun violence and banning high-capacity magazines and semi-automatic assault rifles.