Fort Lauderdale shooting raises questions about airport security

Police search for a gunman at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday. Five people were killed and eight wounded in an attack from a single gunman near the baggage claim area in terminal 2. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Police search for a gunman at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday. Five people were killed and eight wounded in an attack from a single gunman near the baggage claim area in terminal 2. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

The deadly Friday afternoon shooting at a Fort Lauderdale airport terminal shows the vulnerabilities of airport’s “soft target” areas that are outside security screening.

Because the shooting occurred in the baggage claim area, the incident also highlighted the fact that passengers can legally pack guns in checked baggage — and access them after claiming their bags.

Some are calling for increased security to prevent such incidents at airports.

“Airports are now clearly the No. 1 soft target, and are naked and totally unprotected,” according to travelers group in a statement Saturday. The group called for emergency measures “to prevent more lives from being lost,” including banning live ammunition in checked baggage and airport perimeter security to detect weapons and explosives.

Travelers can legally pack guns in checked bags if it is permitted by the airline and they follow required procedures. That’s permitted because passengers in the cabin wouldn’t be able to get a hold of a gun in a checked bag in the cargo hold of the plane.

Whether for hunting trips or other travel, the rules for packing guns in checked bags allow gun owners to travel with their guns even though the weapons are not allowed in carry-on bags.

“TSA doesn’t want to infringe on anyone’s right to take a firearm with them when they travel. We just want to make sure it’s packed in the safest way possible and that it’s in a checked bag so it’s not accessible during the flight,” said TSA spokesman Mark Howell.

To legally pack a gun and ammunition in checked baggage, the gun must be unloaded, in a locked hard-sided case with padding, and must be declared to the airline. Checked luggage is screened by TSA, and travelers who check guns that are not properly packed or declared can face a civil fine.

But even if guns weren’t allowed in checked luggage, airport baggage claim areas are in the “non-secure” part of the airport, outside of security screening.

Airport security checkpoint screening is aimed at preventing passengers from taking weapons onto planes, to make flying safer.

But “non-secure” areas of airport terminals are open for any member of the public to walk in — no questions asked, no screening.

Crowded areas of non-secure parts of airport terminals, including security lines and baggage claim, are acknowledged to be soft targets — not unlike shopping malls, movie theaters, or anywhere where people congregate.

At the Atlanta airport, guns can legally be brought into airport terminals outside of screening checkpoints, including baggage claim.

That wasn’t always true. Prior to 2008, it was against the law to carry a gun anywhere in the airport terminal. Then, Georgia passed a law loosening gun restrictions. The mayor and airport manager at the time, Shirley Franklin and Ben DeCosta, attempted to declare the airport a “gun-free zone.” sued the city and lost.

But in 2010, Georgia's legislature passed another bill increasing gun rights, and as a result the city of Atlanta's legal department concluded that it could not prohibit guns in the terminal, which was reinforced by the so-called "guns everywhere" law in 2014 that extended to all Georgia airports.

That point was made clear when Winder resident and activist Jim Cooley walked into the Hartsfield-Jackson terminal with an AR-15 slung across his chest in 2015 while dropping his daughter off at the airport. Airport police asked him questions and followed him, but did not detain or arrest him.

The Fort Lauderdale airport shooting, in which five people were killed and six others wounded, is not the first attack in an airport terminal. In 2013, a gunman walked up to the security checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport and opened fire, while in 2015 a man at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport approached an airport security checkpoint with a machete and attacked security agents.

On Saturday, the union for TSA officers, the American Federation of Government Employees, pushed for increased training for officers. The attacks at LAX, New Orleans and now Fort Lauderdale highlight the need “to improve the security of passengers, TSA officers, and airport and airline personnel,” said the union’s president J. David Cox in a written statement.

Mary Leftridge Byrd, the TSA federal security director at Hartsfield-Jackson, said the agency has a work group studying security in public areas. “It’s a very complicated question,” Leftridge Byrd said. “We have to really think about this.”

She said upon getting word of the Fort Lauderdale shooting, she was quickly in communication with Atlanta Police Department officials.

The TSA is “constantly working with not only our airport partners, but also our local law enforcement partners because we have a very strong reliance on them for safety — not just in the checkpoint but across the airport,” according to Howell.

Hartsfield-Jackson has a heavy presence of police officers throughout the airport, with visible and non-visible security measures including closed-circuit surveillance cameras.

“We have eyes on every square inch of this airport and we maintain a state of hyper-vigilance,” said Hartsfield-Jackson spokesman Reese McCranie. “We have implemented new special response teams that patrol the areas in domestic and international terminals and the baggage claim areas and the concourses on a constant basis.”

Those measures were in place before the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting.

“This is the new reality,” McCranie said.