After Esteban Santiago murdered five people in the Fort Lauderdale airport last week, the obvious question to emerge is how Santiago managed to get a gun through airport security. The question of Santiago’s weapon is two-fold since there are reports that he had shown signs of mental illness as well as the fact that the shooting occurred in an airport, normally considered to be a gun-free zone.
Santiago, an Iraq War veteran who served with the Puerto Rico National Guard, reportedly visited the FBI office in Anchorage, Alaska and complained, according to an FBI spokesman, “that his mind was being controlled by US intelligence agencies. During the interview, Mr. Santiago appeared agitated, incoherent and made disjointed statements. Although, he stated he did not wish to harm anyone, as a result of his erratic behavior, our [FBI] agents contacted local authorities who took custody of Mr. Santiago and transported him a local medical facility for evaluation.”
The spokesman said that Mr. Santiago, who had lived in Alaska for several years and worked there as a security guard and a member of the Alaska National Guard, was not placed on a no-fly list. “During our initial investigation, we found no ties to terrorism. There is currently no indication that Mr. Santiago was working with other individuals when he planned and carried out yesterday’s attack.”
With respect to Santiago’s mental health, a spokesman noted, “There is a federal law with regard to having a gun by somebody who is mentally ill, but the law requires that the person be ‘adjudicated mentally ill,’ which is a difficult standard. This is not someone who would have been prohibited [from owning or possessing a gun] based on the laws that they had. I think that law enforcement acted within the laws that they had. We’re a country of laws and they operated within them.”
There are laws that prevent the mentally ill from possessing guns, but the right to keep and bear arms is a fundamental right and due process must be followed to restrict that right. Federal and Alaska law state that firearms ownership and possession are prohibited if a person has been “adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to a mental institution.” Neither seems to have applied to Santiago, whose gun was returned after a mental health screening in connection with his statements at the FBI office according to the Anchorage Daily News.
“Unless there was some sort of a court order requiring involuntary commitment for mental health treatment, under existing gun control legislation, he could not be deprived of his constitutional right to possess a weapon,” Paul Callan, former New York homicide prosecutor told CNN. “People who submit to voluntary mental health treatment don’t lose their right to possess firearms under current US law.”
Health care workers are required to notify authorities if they believe a patient may pose a danger to themselves or others. Privacy laws may conflict with this duty to warn, however. With many mass shootings in recent years, the perpetrators have exhibited signs of mental illness before their shooting sprees. Until a law is broken, such as making a threat, people who are mentally ill and potentially dangerous must voluntarily seek treatment.
Since Santiago was not committed or judged to be mentally ill, he had broken no laws and was free to travel. Esteban placed his weapon in a checked bag for his flight to Florida. NBC News reports that the Glock 9mm pistol was in a gun case that was carried in the baggage compartment of the airliners that flew Esteban from Anchorage to Minneapolis and Fort Lauderdale.
According to TSA rules, guns and ammunition are allowed on airliners if they are placed in a checked bag that is hard-sided and kept locked. Passengers cannot carry guns, ammunition or parts of guns such as magazines or clips in the cabin of the airliner. Ammunition can be placed in the same locked container as the gun.
Esteban would have checked his gun case and declared his firearm when he checked in at the airport. He would then have gone through the TSA security screening and traveled unarmed. Baggage claim areas are outside of the secure area of the airport.
Esteban reported left the secure area of the airport and retrieved his gun case at baggage claim upon arrival in Fort Lauderdale. At that point, he took the gun and ammunition out of the case and killed five people.
At this point, it seems that gun laws were followed in the case of Esteban Santiago. The gun was legal, Santiago owned and possessed it legally and he legally transported it across the country.
The failure in Fort Lauderdale seems to the same failure that contributed to so many shootings in the past few years. Law enforcement and the mental health system failed to identify a troubled individual who was in need of treatment. Perhaps instead of calling for more gun control, we should revisit privacy laws that prevent doctors, employers and law enforcement agencies from sharing information about potential killers. Consideration should also be given to reforming commitment laws so that potentially dangerous people can be given treatment without their consent.
Keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill is not a gun control issue. It is a public safety issue. If mass shootings continue unabated, the left’s outcry for more gun control may lead to sweeping laws like those of New York that restrict all gun ownership, rather than sensible laws that target the real problem.