It’s no secret that the US has a complicated relationship with guns. The right to keep and bear arms is enshrined in the US Constitution’s Second Amendment, and civilian gun ownership is far more prevalent than it is in other advanced countries. According to a Washington Post analysis based on data from the Congressional Research Service and manufacturing numbers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, in 2013 there were around 357 million guns in the US, a country of just over 324 million people.
While US civilian firearm ownership is protected by law, and powerful pro-gun advocacy groups such as the National Rifle Association – the oldest continuously operating civil rights group in the country – lobby tirelessly to defend Second Amendment rights, there’s little denying that the country’s love affair with guns has brought with it a tragic cost in human lives. Gun-related deaths in the US totalled 13,286 in 2015, according to the non-profit Gun Violence Archive, and while developed countries in Europe and Asia might suffer one or two deaths by gunshot per million people, the rate in the US is around 31 per million people, equivalent to 27 deaths every day.
Mass shootings, meanwhile, remain a constant concern. The state of Florida has been disproportionately affected by mass shooting events in the past year, the largest of which was the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting in June, which claimed 49 lives. More recently, in early January, five people were killed and eight were injured when military veteran Esteban Santiago-Ruiz opened fire in a baggage claim area near Terminal 2 of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
Santiago-Ruiz’s deadly attack shone a new spotlight on a raft of gun legislation in Florida that could see restrictions loosened on citizens’ rights to carry weapons in non-secured areas of Florida’s airports.
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Senate Bill 140: the right to self-defence
The most comprehensive of these legislative proposals is Senate Bill 140 (SB 140), introduced by Florida Senator Greg Steube, which would not only allow licensed gun-owners to carry weapons in airport passenger terminals (also the objective of House Bill 6001, introduced by Representative Jake Raburn), but also allow permit-holders to open carry guns in public and eliminate other ‘gun-free’ zones, such as those at schools, university campuses and government meetings.
In the wake of a deadly mass shooting like the one at Fort Lauderdale Airport (FLA), it would be natural to assume that political debate might centre on ways to reduce the number of guns in highly sensitive public areas. But for Steube, who introduced SB 140 in December last year, the shooting at FLA reinforces the need for citizens to be armed if they wish in unsecured airport terminals and other public spaces. The bill, he argues, is intended to give innocent citizens a better chance of defending themselves in these areas, and to address an unfair imbalance of power.
“Shooters know they’re gun-free zones, and they know that law-abiding citizens aren’t present to defend themselves and that they [can] go in there and start shooting,” Steube told Yahoo News in January. “The law not permitting those from carrying at the airport sure as hell didn’t stop the criminals and the terrorists from walking in and starting shooting people. It’s only stopping law-abiding citizens’ ability to defend themselves.”
Many pieces of pro-gun legislation have been knocked back in recent years by the Florida legislature, including Steube’s own proposals, but these measures could receive a more positive hearing this time round, given that Steube himself is now chairman of the Florida Senate Judiciary Committee, which will consider the bill before it passes on to two more committees and, if successful, appears on the Senate floor. The committee was due to give SB 140 its first hearing on 10 January, but the meeting was postponed due to the absence of a senator.
More recently, Steube has decided to dismantle SB 140, splitting up its constituent parts into a number of individual bills, with the right to carry at airport terminals covered by Senate Bill 618 (SB 618). This move has delayed the filing and hearing process due to the re-drafting of several smaller bills, but clearly Steube believes it will make their passage smoother.
“Instead of looking at it as a huge comprehensive bill, we're going to try to do it piecemeal,” Steube said. "Just from feeling the tea leaves, it's probably better to attack it piece by piece.”
Would more guns make Florida airports safer?
Steube’s move to split up SB 140 may be a ploy to improve its measures’ chances of becoming law by debating them separately, thus theoretically making each individual measure easier to swallow for the legislature. He might have been right to be cautious, as a host of gun control advocates, security experts and politicians have lined up to oppose Steube’s proposals.
So what are the most common criticisms of what is now SB 618 – which was filed on 1 February and is now identical to Representative Raburn’s HB 6001 – when it comes to improving public safety in unsecured airport areas?
For a start, argued Palm Beach County-based criminologist and author Thomas Gabor, it’s a fallacy that airport terminals are gun-free zones, as most major airports “have armed and unarmed security personnel,” he wrote in an editorial for the Sun Sentinel newspaper in January, which also pointed out a study that found 93 of 111 mass shootings from 1966 to 2015 occurred in areas where guns were not prohibited.
“An FBI study of active shooter incidents found that just one of 160 incidents was stopped by an armed civilian,” Gabor wrote. “Furthermore, numerous law enforcement experts have expressed the view that having multiple armed individuals at an active-shooter situation may create confusion for police, impede their response, and lead to catastrophic, friendly-fire shootings by officers and civilians.”
This point was corroborated by the experience of Dallas law enforcement officers during a mass shooting event at a protest rally in the city in July last year, which claimed the lives of five police officers. According to then Dallas Police Department chief David Brown, the prevalence of protestors legally and openly carrying firearms stymied police attempts to respond to the situation.
“It's been the presumption that a good guy with a gun is the best way to resolve some of these things,” Brown said at a press conference after the incident. “Well, we don't know who the good guy is versus who the bad guy is if everybody starts shooting, and we've expressed that concern as well.”
South Miami mayor Philip K. Stoddard reiterated the dangers of friendly-fire incidents, adding that allowing private guns in airports would force an escalation of armed capability from security forces.
“Legal guns in airports would require us to place teams of heavily armed police in every terminal, like we see in Latin America,” he wrote in a strongly-worded Sun Sentinel editorial against Steube’s proposals. “To our dearly elected state legislators: if your Maker endowed you with the power of foresight, now would be a good time to use it. SB 140 should not make it out of committee.”
Live ammunition in luggage: should it be banned?
In fact, the Fort Lauderdale shooting could make a good argument for tightening restrictions on firearms in airports. Santiago-Ruiz carried out the shooting in FLA’s baggage claim area after packing a pistol and ammunition in his stowed baggage when he departed from Alaska, which he then took into a bathroom to load before opening fire in the terminal. This is legal under Transportation Security Administration regulations.
Gun control advocates and other groups, including travellers’ group FlyersRights.org, are calling for the transport of live ammunition in stowed luggage to be banned to avoid another such attack.
“This clearly is a gaping hole in the security process that we need to close,” US Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz told the Palm Beach Post in January.
Will SB 618 and HB 6001 make it out of committee and into Florida state law? Only time will tell. But the security equilibrium at airports is finely balanced, and the introduction of potentially hundreds of privately held firearms could easily tip that balance in ways that are hard to predict. The evidence for concealed-carry private guns improving safety in public spaces seems sparse, while the evidence against looks significantly stronger. This may be one of the many cases where the old adage of ‘fighting fire with fire’ would do more harm than good, no matter how strongly some American gun-owners feel about their Second Amendment rights.