New Orleans attack: Are airports safe enough with unarmed TSA officers?

An attack on TSA officers in New Orleans was stopped by an armed deputy sheriff. Such attacks, as well as increasing incidents of passengers bringing firearms into airports, raise questions about whether at least some TSA officers should be armed.

Michael DeMocker/ The Times-Picayune/AP
Officials applaud TSA agent Carol Richel who was chased by a machete-wielding man at a security checkpoint of Louis Armstrong International Airport Friday evening.

Here are just a few of the weapons Transportation Security Administration agents came upon this past week: 45 firearms, 41 of them loaded, and 13 with rounds in the chamber ready to be fired; knives; brass knuckles; 20 stun guns; and a hatchet.

It’s been years since terrorist attacks led to increased security measures at US airports, including creation of the TSA two months after 9/11. Since then, most air travelers have become accustomed to body scans, pat-downs, more intrusive luggage inspections, and carry-on restrictions. Everything from the obvious – guns and hand grenades – to lacrosse sticks and cricket bats.

But that hasn’t kept passengers from trying to sneak weapons aboard airliners or inadvertently carrying items clearly banned from air travel.

In 2014, that totaled 2,212 firearms discovered in carry-on luggage, 1,835 of them loaded – a 22 percent increase over 2013 and more than triple the annual figure since 2005. Weapons last year included a loaded folding-stock rifle with two loaded magazines and a pistol with five rounds (one chambered) strapped to a passenger’s ankle. The top 10 airports for gun catches were in Texas and other parts of the South.

Many times, arrests are made and banned items seized. Only rarely are armed passengers an overt threat to TSA agents, who themselves are unarmed.

The situation was far different Friday evening when Richard White entered the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport armed with a machete and carrying a bag of Molotov cocktails – six Mason jars with cloth wicks soaked in gasoline.

Mr. White started his attack by spraying TSA agents with wasp killer. A TSA agent blocked the machete with a piece of luggage as White ran through a metal detector. As White chased another TSA agent, Lt. Heather Slyve of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office drew her weapon and fired three times. White was taken to a hospital where he later died.

A bomb squad found smoke bombs in the trunk of White’s car, as well as tanks of acetylene, oxygen, and Freon.

Investigators are piecing together what happened and why. Initial reports indicate the attacker was mentally disturbed. White’s family has been cooperating with the investigation, Sheriff Newell Normand said at a press conference Saturday.

Friday’s attack on TSA agents was not the first.

In November 2013, Paul Anthony Ciancia entered Los Angeles International Airport with a Smith & Wesson .223-caliber assault rifle, five 30-round ammunition clips, and more boxes of bullets in his duffel bag.

He specifically sought out TSA officers, killing one, Gerardo Hernandez – going back down an escalator to shoot him again when he saw the wounded man moving, then shot two more TSA officers. The attack ended when Mr. Ciancia was shot several times by airport police officers.

Ciancia faces 11 federal counts. In court documents filed in January, prosecutors said they will seek the death penalty. 

"Defendant Paul Anthony Ciancia acted with the intent that his crimes would strike fear in the hearts of Transportation Security Administration employees," prosecutors wrote. "By committing his crimes on a weekday morning in a crowded terminal at one of the busiest airports in the world … Ciancia terrorized numerous airline passengers and airport employees."

Such attacks, as well as the increasing incidents of passengers bringing firearms and other weapons into airports, raise questions about whether at least some TSA officers should be armed.

“As we learned in Los Angeles, and now in New Orleans, [TSA officers] and the passengers they protect need greater law enforcement support at the checkpoint and other key locations,” J. David Cox, Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, representing 45,000 TSA officers, said in a statement. “Only then can we hope to prevent another tragedy, or stop it before people are injured.”

“For years, AFGE has advocated for a new law enforcement unit within TSA, specially trained and armed to respond to such attacks, and for other safety measures at screening checkpoints,” Mr. Cox said. “We applaud the response of law enforcement officers who ended yesterday’s attack in New Orleans, but many other airports are not prepared to respond as quickly or as effectively.”

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