A woman who slung an assault-style rifle across her shoulder for her graduation photos in the US has sparked a fierce debate over personal freedom, student protests and white privilege.
Kaitlin Bennett graduated from Kent State University in Ohio with a degree in biology.
The following day, the 22-year-old returned to the campus with an AR-10 semi-automatic rifle strapped to her back and posed for photographs while holding a graduation cap emblazoned with the words “come and take it”.
Bennett, who later posted the photographs on Twitter, says she was protesting against a university policy that prohibited students, professors and employees from carrying “lethal weapons” on campus – but allows “guests” to possess them on school grounds (but not in buildings).
She noted that Kent State was the location where “four unarmed students were shot and killed by the government” – a reference to the 1970 incident where soldiers clashed with Vietnam War protesters, firing shots that hit 13 protesters and bystanders.
Her tweet generated more than 4,800 retweets and 19,000 likes, sparking a swirl of publicity – both positive and negative.
In subsequent social media posts and interviews, Bennett explained herself.
In a Facebook post, Bennett says she was promoting “my right to defend myself”.
One of the primary responses from gun rights activists since the Parkland high school shooting in February is that the best way to prevent gun violence in educational settings is to do away with “gun-free zones” and allow more law-abiding citizens to carry firearms, both concealed and out in the open.
Bennett said she chose the AR-10, a higher-powered version of the AR-15 rifle that has become controversial due to its use in recent mass shootings, including Parkland and the Newtown elementary school, because it matched her white dress and heels.
“As a woman, I refuse to be a victim & the second amendment ensures that I don’t have to be,” she tweeted.
Critics have countered that while the Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms, that right can be qualified and regulated.
Automatic firearms, such as military-grade machine guns, are already banned, so the question is where to draw the line.
Bennett has said she thinks machine guns should be legal, too.
One criticism levelled at her is that she has the luxury of being able to openly carry firearms in public, where ethnic minorities – who already are the target of discrimination and suspicion – would risk instigating a violent response from authorities.
In 2016, Philando Castile, a black man, was shot and killed by a Minnesota police officer during a traffic stop after informing him that he had a licensed firearm in his car.
Bennett has responded that saying she enjoys the “white privilege” of being able to carry her rifle without fear is “blatant racism”.
“I think that’s very insulting to minorities,” she said during a Fox News interview on Thursday morning. “I don’t think anything bad would happen to them.”
She added that she was escorted on campus by a black university security officer and had held a gun-rights rally on campus in April where several black gun-owners carried AR-15 rifles on campus without incident.
Others have linked Bennett herself to racist behaviour, including Mediate’s Caleb Ecarma, who noted that Bennett – who founded a Kent State chapter of libertarian activist group Liberty Hangout – “liked” a Facebook post advocating for genocide of certain “demographic groups”.
Perhaps one of the most inflammatory aspects of Bennett’s post is her decision to link her action to the 1970 Kent State shootings, which prompted massive protests across the US and served as a rallying cry for the anti-Vietnam War movement.
The Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a grief-stricken young woman kneeled over the body of a dying student is one of the most enduring images of the Vietnam War era.
Laura Hudson, culture editor at the website The Verge, asked her mother – who was at Kent State shooting – what she thought of Bennett’s views.
“If this women saw other humans DIE in front of her, she might not be so flagrant in supporting guns,” she replied.
“If the KSU students back then had guns, it would have been an even bigger massacre. Many more people on both sides would have died. And when you see someone die in front of you, bleed to death, it changes you forever.”
Bennett’s comments, however, reflect a popular strain of belief among some gun-rights advocates that the true purpose of the Second Amendment is not to ensure the right of self defence, but to serve as a bulwark against government tyranny.
The view is that the authors of the constitution crafted the amendment to allow an armed citizen to fight back if the federal government infringes on their rights.
It’s a motivating belief behind the modern far-right militia and survivalist movements – and one that some firearm manufacturers have specifically catered to in advertisements promoting their products.
Bennett, as a result of publicity from her Twitter posts, said she’s been offered a job by an Ohio-based gun retailer, Blue Target Firearms, although she notes that she will continue to engage in gun rights advocacy at Kent State and elsewhere.