The LAX Active Shooter
This past weekend a deranged gunman, seeking apparently to teach TSA a lesson of the gravest sort, attacked a large international airport in the US. This attack at Los Angeles International, although violent and aggressive, could have been worse.
Mad man with a gun
As covered in a companion piece, while most of the 503 commercial airports in the US that have regular passenger service have TSA baggage and flight inspectors as well as Federal Air Marshals that fly through them, these airports are not 'owned' by the federal government. With that in mind, local law enforcement, or contract security are usually responsible for the actual protection of the airport. This is due to jurisdictional issues with the FBI stepping in to investigate terrorism incidents.
LAX is therefore protected by 1100-member Los Angeles Airport Police Department, the largest of its type in the United States if not the world. It was this department that took on one 23-year old active shooter, identified as Paul Anthony Ciancia in November 2013. While reports are sketchy, what is known is that a roommate dropped Ciancia at Terminal 3 of LAX at 930 on Friday morning on All Saints Day. Unknown to the roommate, Ciancia was not catching a flight but rather a date with destiny.
Armed with a legally owned Smith and Wesson M15 5.56mm semi-automatic sporting rifle concealed in a bag along with five spare magazines, the man went directly to the TSA baggage checkpoint. There he encountered TSA screener Gerardo I. Hernandez, a 39-year old father of two and immigrant from El Salvador. Ciancia allegedly shot the unarmed Hernandez, striking him multiple times. He then walked away to find more victims but returned to deliver a coup de grace style execution shot to the prostrate Hernandez.
Wandering away from the checkpoint to deliver more damage, Ciancia wounded two other TSA employees and a teacher who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The LAAPD engaged the active shooter and ended the threat with a shot to the gunman's face with a .45ACP service weapon. While the 'bullet knocked his teeth out, split his tongue and blew away part of the madman's face' he was not killed and is currently in custody at a medical facility, facing charges of murder of a federal officer and commission of violence in an international airport which could send him to death row. Found inside the gunman's bag was a note that said he wanted to "kill TSA."
(The gunman's M15 rifle secured by airport police)
Criticism of unsecure checkpoints
Although the LAAPD responded rapidly to the active shooter, there is already open discussion of why an armed officer was not at the TSA checkpoint to help secure it. According to a CBS News article "Recent changes made at LAX have armed officers roving around the terminal and required to be within a five-minute response time instead being stationed within 300 feet of every screening area." This, even though the department has swollen from 400 members in 2001 to over 1100 today.
This is not the first time that TSA officers were assaulted at unsecure checkpoints. At Honolulu airport in April, a vacationing California police officer had to intervene in an attack on an unarmed TSA screener. The off duty and unarmed cop took down the assault suspect only after he observed no other security or law enforcement officers in the area.
Active Shooter concept validated
This goes to show that a dedicated law enforcement force prepositioned can be very effective in eliminating active shooters. In police thinking in the old days, if there were a shooter who was actively killing people, responding officers would secure the area and wait for a tactical team to arrive. This type of thinking kept the responders outside Columbine High School in 1999 for more than 45 minutes while two shooters roamed the halls, firing at students and setting off homemade explosives. Now, most departments realize that time waiting translates into lives lost and receive instruction on how to handle active shooter incidents. The LAAPD had just within the past few weeks conducted an active shooter exercise.
(During the shooting, many hid in bathrooms as shown by this phone captured image from that day. This actually falls into line with the Department of Homeland Security's "Run-Hide-Fight advice for civilians in active shooter situations.)
A clear parallel is drawn in the 1985 Rome airport attack. There a single Israeli Secret Service agent stationed in Rome and at the airport at the time of the attack noticed the shooting and immediately reacted. It took him 20 seconds to end the threat posed by three of the terrorists and seriously injure the remaining one. Other members from his team came running from other parts of the terminal to help out, but it was all over by the time they arrived. After an autopsy was conducted, it became clear that this one single agent had neutralized all the four terrorists: only bullets fired by this agent were found in the bodies of the terrorists.
At LAX, there were enough good people with guns to handle the bad one this time.