21 July 2012

Tragedy at the Movieplex

Friday morning (20 July 2012) I went to Bay News 9's website to check the morning news, like I always do every morning. Sadly, another mass shooting took place in America, this time in Aurora, Colorado at a Cinemark Movie Theater during a midnight premiere of the movie The Dark Knight Rises. According to several news media reports as summarized in Wikipedia, 12 people lost their lives and 58 people were injured.

The perpetrator, James Holmes, was believed to be dressed in law enforcement protective clothing and managed to gain access to the auditorium where The Dark Knight Rises was being shown through an emergency exit, apparently in order to avoid detection by theatre staff. Once inside, Mr. Holmes set off canisters of tear gas to distract the audience, then began shooting at innocent movie goers in the auditorium as the movie was playing. According to media reports, Holmes is in custody facing numerous serious charges and I am not sure if Mr. Holmes will face Federal and/or Colorado charges as Federal law enforcement agents were involved along with local police.

Just how can anyone sneak their way into a movie theater? What irks me is that most movie theaters have little to no security, and if there is any security it consists of maybe one or two security guards hired by the theaters themselves during the evening hours. Working in conjunction with theater management, security deals with minor issues such as patron conduct (especially chatter or use of a cell phone including texting during the movie) and patrons that do not have a ticket or are sitting in the wrong auditorium.

If you have attended a movie at a multi-auditorium theater such as AMC Theatres' Veterans 24 in Tampa, there are emergency exit doors on one or both sides of the screen that enable quick evacuation in the event of an emergency. Unfortunately, people manage to sneak in through these emergency exits to watch a movie for free, and most of the time people sneak in undetected.

How is security handled at the front door of a theater to prevent unticketed patrons from entering? The only thing visible is when the attendant takes your ticket and directs you to the auditorium where your movie is playing. Sometimes, you may be directed to wait in a designated area and your ticket stub may be checked again, especially if the movie you are seeing is a major release.

Now let's compare how security for a movie theater as I just mentioned is handled vs. security at Tropicana Field when you go to a Tampa Bay Rays game.

Since the events of 11 September 2001, security at the ballpark has been tightened including Tropicana Field. The first layer of security takes place just before you enter Tropicana Field, and that is a bag inspection by the Rays' security staff, checking for prohibited items. The second layer takes place at the door when your ticket is scanned; security is posted at every entrance to prevent entry by unticketed patrons. The third layer takes place once you are inside, as there is a heavy security presence not only by Rays' security staff but by St. Petersburg Police Department officers working security detail at Tropicana Field.

Additionally, the fan hosts play an important role while you are inside Tropicana Field: When you arrive at your seating area, the fan host that oversees that seating area will take a look at your ticket to see that you are in the correct seat. Moreover, if you have the occasion to sit on the 200 Press Level, your ticket is checked before you are even allowed admittance onto the 200 level itself. After all, the 200 level houses the suites, which allow you to see the Rays in style - for a premium price, unless you know someone that is a suite holder and you get a suite ticket.

Besides, the Rays do enforce assigned and ticketed seating to the letter. The fan hosts do quickly resolve any issues regarding assigned seating such as if you proceed to your assigned seat and find that someone is already sitting there and at the same time will not move out of your assigned seat.

While security is sophisticated at Tropicana Field, unfortunately security at a movie theater is next to nil.

In short: Anyone can slip in to a movie theater through a back entrance or slip in to a movie other than the movie the patron was ticketed for once past the ticket check. Undetected.

Now how did James Holmes get his hands on law enforcement grade protective clothing and weaponry such as tear gas and automatic weapons? Unfortunately, most law enforcement grade paraphernalia can be bought thanks to the Internet with one exception: Firearms. Sound scary?

Firearms can be purchased on the Internet. However, due to United States Federal laws regulating firearm sales, anyone placing an order for a firearm online cannot be shipped directly to you - instead, it has to be shipped to a licensed firearms dealer (a federal firearms licensee) for ultimate delivery to the customer. When the firearm arrives at the dealer, the customer is called and is told to come in and bring identification (such as a driver's license) so that a check of the National Instant Criminal Background Check system (called an NICS check) can be conducted.

In Florida, these checks are conducted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement which provides an interface not only to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), but also the Florida Crime Information Center (FCIC) as well.

Once the background check comes back with no issues, then - and only then - the firearm is released to the customer.

Which leads me to believe that someone who is not allowed to have a firearm in his or her possession can somehow order potentially deadly law enforcement weaponry - other than firearms - on the Internet. To me, that is very scary. Another thing that comes to mind is the straw purchase - someone purchasing firearms for a person who is legally not allowed to possess a firearm; after all, it is believed that the perpetrators of the Columbine High School tragedy in Littleton, Colorado (which took place in 1999) had firearms in their possession that were purchased by someone else!

Here's a quick rundown of categories of persons that are not allowed to purchase, own or even have a firearm in their possession:

Conviction of a felony
Conviction of a misdemeanor domestic violence charge
Under criminal charges for a felony
Being a fugitive from justice
Is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance
Has been committed to a mental institution by order of a court
Anyone who is in the United States illegally (illegal alien)
Discharged from the United States Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions
Having renounced American citizenship
Is the subject of a domestic violence restraining order

Anyone that is not allowed to even have a firearm in his or her possession and does so can be charged with the crime of Felon in Possession of a Firearm, which is a felony in itself in Florida as well as elsewhere in America.

It is unknown if James Holmes had any criminal history or any other factors which would prevent him from having a firearm in his possession. However, it was reported in the media that James Holmes was enrolled in the University of Colorado's Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora and that his academic performance was declining. As such, Mr. Holmes was in the process of withdrawing from the university. As CBS News reports, James Holmes did not have a criminal record in Colorado or in California, where Mr. Holmes lived in San Diego.

Let's say if someone does not have a criminal record, but has been taken into custody per Florida's Baker Act, the law where a law enforcement officer can take anyone into custody for transport to the nearest mental health receiving facility due to an emergency mental health condition. The 72 hour hold is not an arrest in itself, as within that 72 hour time frame a psychiatrist has to examine the person to see if he or she meets the criteria for involuntary commitment.

Once the examination is over the psychiatrist can either discharge the patient if the patient poses no further danger or petition the circuit court for involuntary commitment. Once the petition is filed a hearing is held and if based on testimony that the patient needs further treatment the judge will order that the patient be committed for treatment, usually not to exceed six months.

If a person is committed on an involuntary basis to a mental health facility for treatment, a record of that order is processed (see Section 790.065 of the Florida Statutes) by the clerk of the circuit court for transmittal to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which will add the person into both Florida's FCIC as well as the FBI's NCIC. Once added, if a person who has been committed to a mental health facility on an involuntary basis attempts to purchase a firearm, the purchase will not be able to go through. Other than that, all other aspects of the involuntary commitment are confidential due to Federal HIPAA laws on confidentiality of medical records.

Now what could be done to enhance security at the movieplex? More needs to be done to insure the safety of patrons that want to go see the latest release without turning a movieplex into another airport as far as airport security is concerned. Here are my ideas:

Increased video surveillance, both inside and outside the theater
Alarms that go off if the emergency exit doors are opened
Increased security awareness by movie theater staff
Presence of plainclothes security hired by the theater at all times
Enhancement by law enforcement officers during evening hours, especially Friday and Saturday nights as well as premieres of major releases
After all, private security does not have the power of arrest in the State of Florida but law enforcement does
Ban the wearing of masks or the possession of any weapon - real or toy - in a movie theater, as AMC Theatres has done in the wake of the tragic incident in Aurora

Another idea which comes to mind is assigned seating at a movie theater akin to the assigned seating at Tropicana Field. Unfortunately, assigned seating can become a nightmare for movie theater operators, as seating in the movieplex is first come first served.

Had these security enhancements been put in place, perhaps tragedy such as the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado could have been avoided. At the Rays game at Tropicana Field against the Seattle Mariners on Friday, 20 July 2012 (we won - 14 innings!) there was a moment of silence that was observed to remember the victims of the tragedy that took place in Aurora right before the national anthem.

And one more thing, if I may have your attention for just a moment on the recently expired federal ban on assault weapons. Had there been such a ban in place, perhaps the tragedy in Aurora may have been averted.

My hearts are with the people of Colorado in the wake of the horrible tragedy in Aurora. The shock and trauma from the images and stories from Aurora are still very much with us, and it is impossible to put in words to describe the pain being felt by families and friends of the victims.

In the wake of this massacre, it's time to put aside politics and reinstate the federal ban on assault weapons.

I just signed a petition over at Credo Action urging President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney to ask Congress to reinstate the expired federal assault weapon ban today. I hope you will join the cause by signing the petition below:


Again, my thoughts go out to the families of the victims of the tragedy that took place at the Cinemark Theater in Aurora, Colorado. A very sad tragedy indeed.

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