Lafayette Shootings Again Raise Issues of Security at Movie Theaters

After a gunman shot and killed two women and injured nine others in a Lafayette, La., movie theater on Thursday, security at the multiplex is once again an issue.

Authorities in other Louisiana cities announced plans to increase patrols of local theaters over the weekend, and one lawmaker told Buzzfeed News that she is working on a bill to install metal detectors in movie venues.

But some exhibitors see adding armed guards inside theaters, or examining theater patrons for weapons, as prohibitively expensive, while sending a message of potential danger to moviegoers expecting an evening of entertainment.

Industry trade group the National Assn. of Theater Owners had no comment.

John Russell Houser, 59, the gunman, took his own life after the shootings at the Grand Theater during a screening of “Trainwreck.” Authorities described him as a drifter who had a history of mental illness. They said he fired at least 13 rounds from a semiautomatic handgun.

“Exhibitors should always be concerned about the safety of their patrons, but going forward, perhaps the issue is how vulnerable we all are in any venue,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “It speaks to the bigger issue of public safety.”

“It is more of a societal issue than a movie theater issue,” he added. “That is the crux of the whole situation.”

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence noted that the tragedy occurred at “one of our country’s favorite pastimes — a night at the movies,” but focused on the issue of access to firearms. Dan Gross, its president, said that “it will be important to learn whether [Houser] legally had any business owning a firearm and, if not, finding out how he got one.”

Investigators continue to examine the events that led to Houser’s shooting rampage.

Matt Bogaard, whose Bogaard Group Intl. advises companies on security and risk management, said that there aren’t “any pending threats or unusual concerns surrounding the safety of movie theaters today. They are and continue to be safe places for entertainment.”

But he said that the shooter’s selection of a movie theater could have been a product of many factors: “It’s so dark, the shooter’s final act behaviors can occur largely undetected, the surprise factor makes intervention by others slower and less effective, the noise and dialogue associated with some films could confuse people into thinking the shooting wasn’t real, and the public access means the shooter could conduct pre-incident boundary probing, rehearsals and security surveillance in advance.”

Some security experts said they still find security wanting at many theaters.

“They have a long way to go if they really want to make their theaters secure,” said Howard Levinson, president of Expert Security Consulting in Massachusetts, who has advised multiple chains on security procedures and also worked on the aftermath of the July 2012 shootings in Aurora, Colo. Last week, James Holmes, the Aurora shooter, was convicted on all 165 charges in the first-degree murder deaths of 12 people and the attempted murder of 40 others.

Levinson said that what typically happens after a tragic event is “you have short-term corrective measures, then things start to fall back to what they were.”

He knows of few theaters that have brought in metal detectors, an added expense not just for the equipment but for the cost of employees to monitor them.

A basic problem for theaters, he said, is training. Many theaters have a high turnover of employees, with a large part of their workforce under the age of 20, he said. That makes training more difficult.

Levinson said one chain “had more pages in their training manual for how to make popcorn than they do for security. There’s a lot of different issues, a lot of different challenges, and these chains have got to take a look at it.”

On one level, movie theaters are no different from other public places; on another, they face their own set of security challenges.

That has come up in the case of Cinemark Theaters, which is facing civil litigation from victims and family members of the Aurora shooting, who contend that the multiplex failed to take reasonable security precautions.

Cinemark’s attorneys have argued that the danger was unforeseeable. “The very reason why mass murderous assaults obtain their notoriety is because they are random, aberrant, rare, unexpected, unanticipated and shocking,” they wrote in a court brief last year; nothing like the motiveless, mass-murderous assault by Holmes had occurred before.

But last year, U.S. District Judge Brooke Jackson refused to grant Cinemark’s motion for summary judgment, writing that “the setting of modern life is simply the changed landscape in which any school or base or business where large numbers of people congregate operated in July 2012. Although theaters had theretofore been spared a mass shooting incident, the patrons of a movie theater are, perhaps even more than students in a school or shoppers in a mall, ‘sitting ducks.’ One might reasonably believe that a mass shooting incident in a theater was likely enough (that is, not just a possibility) to be a foreseeable next step in the history of such acts by deranged individuals.”

Jackson’s ruling was merely that enough issues of fact exist for the case to go to trial. If the case proceeds to that stage, some of the issues expected to be raised are why off-duty policemen and other security personnel were hired to patrol midnight screenings of “The Dark Knight Rises” at some Cinemark theaters, but not in Aurora. Plaintiffs also have argued that the exit door that Holmes propped open to gain exit and entrance to the theater lacked a functioning alarm, something that could have alerted employees.

Attorney Bryan Sullivan, partner at Early Sullivan in Los Angeles, said that what is “foreseeable” still has to be measured against what is possible in other public places.

He said via email that “if it is foreseeable at a movie theater, then it should be foreseeable at other public venues, such as malls, restaurants, etc., which is not reasonable. And, the only way to protect against such incidents is to have armed security guards present at all such public venues and to have metal detectors at such places as well to prevent anyone from bringing a weapon in.”

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