The only real surprise with what happened last week in the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport was that people were surprised.
When we look at Esteban Santiago’s actions with the benefit of hindsight, we could almost anticipate that a tragedy of this kind would occur somewhere at some time.
In November, Santiago went to an FBI office in his hometown of Anchorage, Alaska, and told them the CIA was making him watch ISIS videos to control him.
Since he wasn’t an active threat, the FBI secured his firearm and the newborn he had with him, and contacted local law enforcement who brought him to a mental health facility for evaluation. We now know that he had four run-ins with law enforcement in 2016, including at least one for domestic violence; that he was hospitalized after returning from military service in Iraq; and, according to his aunt and uncle Ruiz and Hernan Rivera, had ongoing mental health problems. So, was this a failure of law enforcement? I think not; more accurately, it is a consequence of the rights and benefits we enjoy as citizens.
We Americans enjoy several inalienable rights, the combination of which allowed Santiago to do exactly what he did. As a foundation, we have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as outlined in the Declaration of Independence. Simply put, unless there is a compelling societal reason, we are to be left alone by the government.
We also have a specific, seemingly elevated, right to keep and bear arms, pursuant to the Second Amendment to the Constitution. In practice, unless somebody is a convicted felon or adjudicated mentally incompetent (and even that’s questionable), then ownership of a weapon, or dozens of weapons, cannot be denied, and can hardly be regulated.
In the wake of this shooting, some are demanding a tighter airport security; a restriction on guns at airports and an expansion of the security zones. It would be an easy kneejerk reaction to expand the area of airport security to include baggage claim, but it would not have avoided this tragedy; he and his gun were already there. And even if somehow we could stop it at baggage claim, it would simply have happened outside the doors or in the parking lot. Another overreaction could be to limit or deny firearms in checked baggage.
Though that might make some sense, we would never see that legislated, and it would be similarly ineffective as the guns would simply sit in cars in airport parking lots. Perhaps more robust analysis of travelers’ habits would help. I am surprised that, as the investigation has revealed so far, Santiago traveled from Anchorage to Fort Lauderdale, on a one-way ticket, with one bag — carrying only the gun and ammunition — and it raised no suspicion.
Santiago does focus our attention on one primary issue: possession of firearms by people with mental health concerns. It is time for gun rights advocates to acknowledge that reasonable restrictions on gun ownership actually protects the Second Amendment right, rather than dilutes it.
Just as we deny felons the right to bear arms, we must come together and attend to the difficult issue of the denial of such rights to those of us who are not presently capable of discharging the awesome responsibility of firearm possession. While this may infuriate mental health advocates, who will argue that such a policy will only add stigma to those affected, we can no longer stick our heads in the collective sand and allow guns into the hands of those unqualified to handle them properly.
Hopefully, this tragedy will be the one that motivates policy-makers, but the road will not be an easy one. Mental health professionals have yet to agree to the criteria sufficient to deny a constitutional right. And even if agreement is reached, enforcement would require a coordination between law enforcement and mental health professionals in a way that has never happened before. In addition, such programs would have constitutional concerns to be resolved and the funding necessary would be significant.
But it is time.
This tragedy could fade into memory as yet another instance of the societal numbing we have experienced for the past decade when it comes to such atrocities as the Sandy Hook, Emanuel AME Church, San Bernardino, Boston Marathon mass shootings and, unfortunately, many others. Or we can finally wake up, and act affirmatively to stop our schools, our churches and our airports from being the shooting galleries we have allowed. Restrict gun ownership to mentally fit individuals; we have no other choice.