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Florida airport shooting sparks concerns about the safety of flying with firearms

Reports that the gunman in a mass shooting at a Florida airport pulled his gun from a checked bag before opening fire are raising questions about how someone could possibly transport a weapon on a commercial flight and use it against fellow travellers.

Packing a gun in checked luggage on commercial flights is legal in Canada and the U.S.

Packing a gun in checked luggage isn't illegal in Canada, but should it be?

6 years ago
Duration 1:58
Packing a gun in checked luggage isn't illegal in Canada, but should it be?

Reports that the gunman in a mass shooting at a Florida airport pulled his weapon from a checked bag before opening fire are raising questions about how someone could possibly transport a weapon on a commercial flight and use it against fellow travellers.

Iraq war vet Esteban Santiago, 26, is charged in the attack that killed five people in Fort Lauderdale, and according to FBI special agent George Piro, he appears to have followed federal rules when he checked his firearm in his baggage.

That's because transporting firearms and ammunition in checked baggage isn't illegal in the United States. Nor is it is illegal in Canada, as long as the items are declared at check-in, properly packaged and meet the requirements of the airline, according to Canadian Air Transport Security Authority rules.

However, Friday's attack has some suggesting those rules should be re-evaluated.

"I think we need to take a hard look at the security around baggage claim areas, and not just leave it at that," said Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat who represents the area surrounding the airport, following the shooting. "There are many unsecure areas in facilities that the public travels."

In the United States, officials confiscated more than 2,600 firearms from travellers in 2015. But unlike in the case of the Florida shooting, those weapons were intercepted in carry-on bags.

"What went wrong yesterday ... is that baggage claim is the softest of soft targets. I mean an elementary school is harder to get into than a baggage claim at an airport," Chris Grollnek, a former law enforcement officer who specializes in security issues, told The Associated Press.

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who represents the area around the Fort Lauderdale airport, says it's time to look at the rules surrounding flying with firearms. (CBC)

Rifles, shotguns OK in checked bags in Canada

Here at home, individual airlines have their own regulations around the transport of firearms and ammunition. 

Air Canada prohibits certain firearms from being transported on its flights. But hunting rifles, shotguns and certain kinds of handguns are acceptable in checked baggage for passengers 18 years of age or older, provided the weapons are declared and packed separately from ammunition. 

Telling people not to travel with guns is unlikely to prevent tragedies at airports.- Christian Leuprecht, Royal Military College

The airline also requires the firearms to be unloaded, secured with a trigger-locking device, and packed in a special non-transparent case. Ammunition is limited to five kilograms per passenger and must be in a separate locked case.

WestJet has similar rules, but doesn't require hunting rifles or shotguns to be locked. 

"We're already pretty restrictive," says Christian Leuprecht, political science professor at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont.

To own firearms, Canadians must have a possession and acquisition licence (PAL) in one of three categories — for "general", restricted and prohibited weapons. To get the licence, they must pass a firearms safety course. The one licence allows for the possession of a firearm and purchase of ammunition.

A separate authority to transport (ATT) is required for restricted and prohibited weapons.

Danger upon pick-up?

But should those items be accessible to passengers picking up their checked luggage in baggage claim areas?

Former NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton put the problem plainly following Friday's shooting.

"Once the individual is off the plane and retrieves his baggage, and if he intends to use that weapon in an airport environment, then the weapon is immediately available to him or her, as was potentially the case in this incident."

Transporting firearms and ammunition in checked baggage isn't illegal in Canada as long as the items are declared at check-in, properly packaged and meet the requirements of the airline, according to Canadian Air Transport Security Authority rules. ((Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press))

To Leuprecht, that possibility could prompt a rethink from the UN body that regulates international air travel. 

"I'm sure that the International Civil Aviation Organization is going to look at whether, for instance, in arrivals areas we need to do something different ... instead of unloading guns with regular luggage," he said, "or whether people perhaps will now need to fetch their guns at a special place in the airport, so they can't just do what this person did."

But the fact that Canadians and Americans regularly transport guns without incident on a daily basis, he said, proves the regulations usually work. 

"I'm not sure that people transporting guns and taking them out at the baggage area and then shooting things up is really the overriding and greatest security concern that we have or should have at airports," he said.

Greater security could come with costs

Besides, Leuprecht said, designated gun check-in and pick-up areas might sound like a good idea, but it would likely come down to who would pay to keep them staffed.

A U.S. security agent is seen at an airport screening area. (CBC)

The cost of screening in Canada is built into ticket prices paid for by the flying public. More security, he said, will cost more money.

"It's kind of like an insurance premium. It depends on how much we want to pay in order for the level and nature of security that we want."

Regardless, he said, an all-out ban on packing firearms in checked-luggage likely isn't the answer.

"Telling people not to travel with guns is unlikely to prevent tragedies at airports."

Corrections

  • A previous version of the story included a quote that stated separate licences are required to purchase firearms and ammunition. In fact, only a single licence is required.
    Jan 08, 2017 4:10 PM ET

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shanifa Nasser is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News interested in religion, race, national security, the justice system and stories with a heartbeat. She holds an MA in the Study of Religion from the University of Toronto. Her reporting has led to two investigative documentaries by The Fifth Estate. Reach her at: shanifa.nasser@cbc.ca

With files from Lorenda Reddekopp

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