The shooting Friday at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport may test the bounds of something that is entirely legal and commonplace in the United States: Flying with a gun and ammunition.
The incident highlights the peculiarities and seeming contradictions of local, state and federal gun laws inside the nation’s airports: It is legal for a passenger to travel with a firearm and ammunition in checked baggage, but inside baggage claim or at a ticketing counter, that person might otherwise be breaking the law if the weapon is out in the open or carried on their person.
Five people were shot dead and eight wounded in a baggage claim area at Florida’s third-largest airport, and law enforcement sources tell CNN the suspect had legally brought the firearm and ammunition in his checked baggage while flying from Anchorage to Fort Lauderdale. When he reached his destination, the suspect went to baggage claim, got his baggage, took out the gun and began firing, sources told CNN.
Airport officials say that Friday’s incident could ignite a debate about the limits of traveling with firearms, as the shooting revealed a security vulnerability in transportation security policies, but also the near-impossibility of securing areas where the public is free to come and go.
Transportation Security Administration rules permit unloaded firearms and ammunition to be transported as checked baggage. The unloaded firearms, ammunition and other firearm parts such as magazines must be declared at check-in and packed in a locked and hardened case.
A feature of TSA’s social media outreach includes showing photos of confiscated weapons, but they are typically ones found in carry-on luggage during screening at security checkpoints.
Alaska law allows firearms in airport terminals and parking lots, but prohibits them in secure areas of airports. Florida law, by contrast, prohibits them inside airport terminals, unless they’re encased for shipment.
The Florida Legislature next week was scheduled to debate a bill that would allow firearms to be carried at, among other public places, airports. Shootings at airports have accounted for a tiny fraction of the all-too-commonplace mass shootings in the U.S., but have garnered high visibility due to the extensive security that surrounds the aviation system globally.
The debate over how to secure airports has been happening at airports around the world.
Thirty-two people were killed in March 2016 at Brussels Airport in the Belgian capital after suicide bombers detonated explosives at a ticketing and check-in area, shutting down the airport for 12 days, and at a train station. An attack at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul in June killed 45 and injured hundreds more.
In the United States, a Southwest Airlines employee was shot and killed following a shooting in November at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City. A TSA officer was killed in November 2013 when a gunman opened fire at a security checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport.