Man wielding machete at New Orleans airport. Should TSA agents carry guns?

On Friday, a man with a machete, Molotov cocktail bombs, and wasp spray attacked passengers and TSA agents at the New Orleans Louis Armstrong International Airport. TSA agents don't carry guns, but should they?

Michael DeMocker/ Times-Picayune/AP Photo
Police investigate on Concourse B of New Orleans Louis Armstrong International Airport after a machete-wielding man was shot by a local law enforcement officer on Friday, March 20.

A man armed with a machete and wasp spray wreaked havoc at a New Orleans airport Friday night before a local sheriff shot him, according to reports.

The attack raises a larger security question: Is it time to arm Transportation Security Administration agents?

Richard White entered a security checkpoint at the Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans at around 8 p.m., sprayed TSA agents and bystanders in line, then drew a machete from the waistband of his pants, according to a statement from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Wielding his weapon, Mr. White led agents and police officers in a chase through the airport’s Concourse B before Lt. Heather Slyve of the sheriff’s office shot him three times, the statement continued. 

In a Saturday afternoon media briefing, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand said White was not a taxi driver as originally believed. The bomb squad found smoke bombs inside White's car, along with tanks in trunk of acyltene, freon and oxygen. Inside his bag left in concourse were six Molotov cocktails, a barbecue lighter, and smoke bombs. White left a bag in the airport concourse that produced "a gas smell," said Normand.

The sheriff said White had a history of mental health problems but investigators were trying to determine the nature and extent of those problems. His family has been cooperating with the investigation.

After being shot, White was taken to a local hospital for surgery. White died Saturday afternoon. 

The incident once more draws attention to how the TSA, whose mandate is to “protect the nation's transportation systems” and “provide the most effective transportation security in the most efficient way,” should handle potentially deadly attacks at airport terminals. Should TSA agents carry guns? 

A similar discussion ignited in 2013, when Paul Ciancia opened fire at the Los Angeles International Airport, killing one TSA agent and wounding three people. Mr. Ciancia made it almost all the way to the departure gate at the back of the terminal before he, too, was shot by local law enforcement and arrested, according to ABC News.

Formed through the Aviation and Transportation Security Act passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the TSA is charged with ensuring travelers’ safety through the screening process, by now familiar to anyone who has traveled by plane in the United States.

Transportation security officers or TSOs – the official title of the typical TSA agent – restrict the transport of deadly and dangerous devices, substances, and materials, and screen passengers, baggage, and cargo before flight. Despite the word “officer” in their title, however, these agents don't carry firearms nor do they have a mandate to arrest lawbreakers. 

For J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the country’s largest federal employee union, that makes the screeners “sitting ducks” in the event of a violent attack, Politico reported.

Following the shooting at LAX, Mr. Cox insisted that TSA officers need guns and law enforcement status.

“Only an armed law enforcement unit within TSA can ensure the constant and consistent presence of sufficient law enforcement resources needed in the immediate area of the checkpoints and other key locations in order to prevent another tragedy like the one that occurred at LAX,” he told Politico at the time.

TSA Administrator John Pistole, while acknowledging that TSA employees needed better protection, said that more guns would not be the answer. His response came in the form of a policy review and subsequent report that Mr. Pistole called a “measured response,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

The report recommended, among others, the enhanced presence of law enforcement officers at airport security checkpoints and shooter training for all TSA employees.

But as to “creating a new law enforcement cadre or deputizing TSOs to carry out law enforcement functions,” the report found, “the Administrator does not believe that adding more guns to the checkpoint by arming TSOs is the solution and that it raises jurisdictional and cost issues.”

“The bottom line of all this is ... that we are doing everything we can to provide for the best possible safety and security,” Mr. Pistole told the Times.

In New Orleans, White’s rampage through Louis Armstrong International led to no casualties. Only one TSA agent was wounded by a bullet from the county sheriff officer's gun, which struck her in the arm.

Authorities are still investigating the motive behind the attack, though it did not it appear that White was trying to get on a plane, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Norman told The Washington Post.

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