EDITORIAL: Our airports shouldn't become more heavily armed fortresses

The Fresno BeeNovember 7, 2013 

Last week's shooting at Los Angeles International Airport reveals a harsh truth.

In our free, democratic society, we have a lot of open places -- airports, train stations, shopping malls, grocery stores, post offices, schools and parks -- where large numbers of people gather.

We cannot make them 100% safe.

Anyone can walk into any of these open public places with anything in a bag -- as U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. said the LAX suspect did with an M&P15 semi-automatic tactical rifle (which is Smith and Wesson's version of the AR-15 rifle), five 30-round magazines and hundreds more rounds in boxes. At airports, bags don't get screened until the security checkpoint.

One thing we should not do is to seize upon this one incident -- which resulted in the death of a TSA employee, the first killing in the 12-year history of the Transportation Security Administration -- to arm TSA screeners.

Yet, right after the LAX shooting, that is what the union representing the screeners suggested. It wants to create a special class of armed TSA officers with law enforcement training. These would replace local airport police officers.

This is too much.

LAX already has the second-largest airport police force in the nation, with more than 1,000 people, including 450 sworn officers. The chief of Los Angeles Airport Police told the press that the suspected shooter last week looked like any other passenger and probably would not have been stopped even if an armed officer was stationed at the front door. Posting more officers in the terminal, he said, wouldn't necessarily have saved the TSA screener's life.

LAX also is protected on the ground by the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI.

We ought not to turn our airports into even more heavily armed fortresses, at great national expense.

We have around 47,000 screeners at more than 450 airports whose job, the TSA says on its website, is to prevent "deadly or dangerous objects from being transported onto an aircraft." That focus on screening remains important.

Congress, when it set up the agency after the 9/11 attacks, deliberately decided that screeners would not carry guns or make arrests. The LAX incident should not change that.

But the LAX shooting should cause us to rethink our inadequate background-check system. We need better mental health screening and treatment, too.

We cannot prevent all violence and a free society ought not to turn its public places into armed camps.

But we can take practical steps with regard to mental health to make sure that incidents of violence do not become mass shootings.

That, not arming TSA screeners, should be our focus.

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