In Fort Lauderdale, Florida in January of 2017, Esteban Santiago picked up a locked gun case containing a Walther 9mm semi-automatic handgun from baggage claim, loaded the weapon, and killed five people, wounding six others.
So, how did he do it? Sun Sentinel Columnist Dave Hyde set out to find out. His trip took him to five cities on five airlines over the course of three days and 4,274 miles.
Hyde found that two of the airliners left the locked gun case in the luggage area, untended, which is compliant with current law. Though Hyde has a concealed carry license, no one ever asked to see it. None of the airlines questioned why Hyde traveled with no bags or luggage other than the gun case containing the unloaded pistol.
The Transportation Security Administration doesn’t keep track of the number of firearms checked into airlines. And the airliners won’t give out that information.
Each airline has a form to fill out when one checks a firearm. The gun must be unloaded and separated from the ammunition, though those can be carried in the same locked case. The keys to the case, of course, must be taken with the owner aboard the plane.
When arriving at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Hyde’s gun case did not appear on the normal baggage claim conveyor. He stopped by the American Airlines’ baggage-claim office, where he was told firearms are ‘special handling’. The clerk checked his driver’s license before she gave him the bag containing the locked firearm box.
Then, Hyde checked his bag with United Airlines. This time, the ticket agent walked him to a TSA inspection location who took possession of his bag. Hyde then moved to the passengers’ checkpoint, which is where he says most issues with guns in airports arise.
TSA regional spokesman Mark Howell said 3,391 guns were taken into custody at security checkpoints nationwide in 2016. 43 of these were at the Ft. Lauderdale airport in Florida.
Upon his arrival in Las Vegas, Hyde’s gun case appeared on the regular baggage claim conveyor, as is United Airline’s policy for handgun delivery.
This is when Hyde decides to change up things. He takes the locked gun case out of its luggage and went to check-in with just the padlocked hard case. This is exactly how Santiago traveled before the incident in Ft. Lauderdale, and is legal in the United States.
The agent at Southwest airlines required him to unlock the case after Hyde filled out the required paperwork. The card was then place inside the box, and he was allowed to lock the case once more. Hyde was then instructed to wait at the TSA office nearby, and told if no one came to speak with him, he was cleared for his flight.
Hyde arrived in Atlanta, where his gun case was left unattended on a counter. He says there were no officials, no agents, and most importantly, no security monitoring the gun case. Anyone could have walked off with it. Hyde opened the case to verify the gun was still inside, and still, no one questioned him.
For his trip to Orlando, Hyde used Delta Airlines. He says Delta has a specific check-in counter for firearms, and then he was directed to the TSA inspection office. An official swabbed the gun looking for “foreign materials”, whatever that might be, and put his declaration card back inside.
In Orlando, Hyde picked up his gun case, secured with a thick zip tie, which he was told was a new procedure since the Ft. Lauderdale shooting. It was put in place to prevent another incident like it. But Hyde went to a gift store, purchased a bottle of water, and asked the cashier for scissors.
Upon his arrival in Ft. Lauderdale, Hyde found his gun case sitting unattended on a stopped carousel. With that, he picked up the case and left the airport. No one questioned him.
Hyde’s story shows how varied are airliners policies when customers are flying with firearms cases.