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SALT LAKE CITY — Some Utah gun rights advocates traveling in a military-style armored vehicle emblazoned with Utah Gun Exchange are following March for Our Lives rallies and town halls along the Florida coast to counter students' call for stricter gun laws.
And the company's plan to set up outside a panel discussion among Utah and Parkland, Florida, high school students at the Megaplex in South Jordan on Saturday prompted Larry H. Miller Sports & Entertainment to cancel the event at its theater.
The student movement grew out of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 people.
“We support important and respectful dialogue on any issue that impacts our community. 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," according to a statement from Miller Sports & Entertainment.
The company said after careful consideration it canceled the event because "our venues are focused on providing a safe, world-class movie experience for our guests, which include families and children." It is refunding the deposit and is offering March for Our Lives help to find another location.
"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," according to March for Our Lives statement.
All 500 free tickets for the event were gone.
The Utah Gun Exchange offered Tuesday to hold the event at its space in Sandy, but the student group declined because it already had a contract with the Megaplex.
March for Our Lives could reconsider, but Madalena McNeil, an adviser to the student group in Salt Lake City, said she and the Utah students wouldn't feel comfortable there nor would she want to put shooting survivor and movement co-founder David Hogg in front of a group that "can't control its members."
McNeil said the Utah students have a lead on another venue but are waiting for direction from the national organization.
Meantime, the Utah Gun Exchange is making its presence felt at March for Our Lives gatherings on the Florida coast.
Bryan Melchior, co-owner of the online gun trading marketplace, said the student group is "basically an anti-Second Amendment propaganda tool disguised as a school safety operation."
"We feel like it's sensible that we bring an opposing message," he said Wednesday en route to the next event in Kissimmee. "We can demonstrate that we are genuinely interested in school safety, but want to do it without trampling on our constitutional rights."
March for Our Lives is pushing for universal background checks, federal funding for gun violence research and bans on semi-automatic assault rifles and high-capacity magazines.
Though Utah Gun Exchange wouldn't have rolled up to the South Jordan theater in its hulking BearCat, those attending events in other areas have found it scary, McNeil said.
"I know that they don't think that it should and that they don't intend to be intimidating, but it does intimidate people. I've heard that from quite a lot of people all over the country who have contacted us about it," she said.
Melchior called the vehicle decorated with American flags and a wreath on the grille, a "cute, cuddly teddy bear" that draws attention and breaks the ice for passers-by.
"It's not insensitive to come here and say, 'Well, wait a second. Can we look at an alternate point of view?’" he said.
In New York, people attending the Pride Parade were dancing on top of the truck, Melchior said.
"Second Amendment issues are LGBT issues," he said. "This is a discriminated class of people who is mostly likely to fall victim to a hate crime, and as result, you ought to be the first people to be exercising your constitutional right to defend yourself and your loved ones."
Melchior ran into some trouble in New York City, where police detained him in a holding cell and seized the vehicle for a couple of hours before citing him for administrative code violations and releasing him.
He said he and his seven or eight traveling companions were routinely met with "hostility" in the Northeast because of their views on gun rights.
"The willingness to deprive us of our freedom, of our civil rights, is not unlike a black man might have felt in the South hundreds of years ago," Melchior said.
Melchior said he embarked on the cross-country tour, which he says costs $20,000 a week, to not only "spread freedom" but to promote the Utah Gun Exchange brand, solicit investors, visit historical sites and broadcast "our news," which the company does on its own YouTube-style site called UGETube.
"As they say, 'It's a free country,'" McNeil, the March for Our Lives adviser, said about the company showing up at the student events. "If that's how they want to spend their time and their resources, then that's their prerogative."
McNeil said she hopes the gun exchange considers hosting its own event in the future if it's serious about having a dialog.
"It's not helping people look favorably on them that they're just kind of showing up to all the March for Our Lives events … that students can feel welcome attending," she said.
Melchior said he has been thinking about that, and that anyone would be welcome to attend.
But he also has another trip in mind with the BearCat. He said he plans to traverse the U.S.-Mexico border to help President Donald Trump "sell the merits" of building a wall. He said his crew would provide border security "ourselves" and break up drug deals and human trafficking.