How Can We Prevent Another Ft Lauderdale-Style Shooting?

In the wake of the recent shooting in the baggage claim area in Ft Lauderdale Airport’s Terminal 2, there are a lot of questions being asked with few answers so far. The most important question that should be asked is… how can we make sure this won’t happen again?

In many ways, we can’t know the answer to that right now. That’s because the motive still isn’t clear, and without knowing exactly why this happened, it’s hard to say how we could prevent it. From what we do know, it’s easy to point fingers. We should deal with mental illness better, this guy should have been banned from owning a gun after past known issues, etc. That all sounds good, but it’s still based on incomplete facts. What we can talk about now is how things can change from an airline/airport perspective.

The basic facts appear to be that this guy bought a ticket to fly from Anchorage to Ft Lauderdale. At the Anchorage airport, he checked his gun and ammunition properly. After a connection in Minneapolis, he arrived in Ft Lauderdale, claimed his bags, and started shooting. That left 5 people dead, more wounded, and thousands of travelers stuck as the airport remained closed into the following day.

I’ve heard some novel but not entirely useful suggestions on how this could have been avoided. One person, I believe on CNN when I was watching this unfold, suggested that when people check guns, they should have to go through a special baggage claim area to pick them up after travel. That way, an agent would have to hand the gun over to the traveler and ensure that the traveler didn’t appear to pose a threat. I have no idea how an agent is going to play psychiatrist, though I suppose if someone walks up and says “give me my gun, I have to shoot people,” then this could help, but let’s be realistic. We have no idea if it would have prevented this, and I’d guess it’s pretty unlikely.

The most obvious solution is what I’ve heard echoed by many others. We shouldn’t allow people to check guns on commercial flights. That sounds like a nice and neat solution, but it’s also not going to solve anything. This guy legally owned a gun and legally Airline Gun Casechecked it on an airplane. The TSA rules ensure that nobody on an airplane is ever at risk while onboard. The gun needs to be unloaded and in a locked, hard-sided case. Something like the TSA-provided image you see at right.

So what would banning checked guns do? Well, it would mean a shooter would have had to buy a gun in Florida instead of wherever he came from, but anyone with real intent could do that. And then he could walk right into a baggage claim area off the street, even without a ticket, and start firing.

And that brings us to the next suggestion which you always hear after something like this. We shouldn’t allow people into the baggage claim area unless they’re arriving passengers. Ok, so if we ban the transport of guns on commercial aircraft and we prevent people from entering baggage claim areas off the street, then that would indeed protect those people from getting shot in the baggage claim area, but there’s a problem.

Once they leave the baggage claim area, they are again in a public place with a lot of people standing around. It doesn’t matter if there’s a baggage claim carousel there or not. If a shooter really just wants to shoot into a crowd at an airport, then that will always be possible just outside the secure area, wherever that may be.

You could do something crazy like require people to go through security 10 miles away and then take secure shuttles into the airport area. But there again, that’s an easy target with people huddling at the entrances and exits to/from the secure area. Shifting the location of the secure area entrance/exit doesn’t enhance security in a shooting situation. It just changes the location where it occurs.

So we’re left with no easy answers. It goes back to issues surrounding who can own a gun, what types of guns can be owned, how we deal with mental health issues, and possibly how to combat terrorism. Those are the hard issues to solve, but in a case like this, that’s the only way to make a difference.

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