Accused airport gunman Esteban Santiago could face the death penalty for charges that he killed five people when he opened fire in a crowded Florida baggage claim terminal. Friday’s shooting came as Florida lawmakers were preparing to consider legislation to loosen prohibitions on firearms by eliminating some of the state’s “gun-free zones,” which currently include airport terminals. We go to Florida to speak with Thomas Gabor, author of Confronting Gun Violence in America. His new opinion piece for the Sun Sentinel is headlined “Expanding gun rights won’t save us from more mass shootings.” We also speak with New York Times reporter Richard Pérez-Peña, co-author of the article, “In Year Before Florida Shooting, Suspect’s Problems Multiplied.”
AMY GOODMAN: We turn to Florida, where accused airport gunman Esteban Santiago could face the death penalty for charges he killed five people and wounded eight others when he opened fire in a crowded baggage claim terminal in Fort Lauderdale Friday. Santiago appeared in federal court Monday. The FBI says when he flew from Alaska to Florida to carry out the shooting, his only checked baggage for the flight was a box with three items: a Walther 9mm semi-automatic handgun and two magazines. After his arrival, investigators say Santiago loaded his gun in a bathroom, returned to the baggage claim. The website TMZ obtained video that appears to show the suspect walked casually through baggage claim at Fort Lauderdale airport before suddenly pulling out a gun and wreaking havoc.
Twenty-six-year-old Santiago was born in New Jersey, grew up in Puerto Rico, was an Iraq War veteran who deployed with the 130th Engineer Battalion in 2010. He was later discharged from the Alaska Army National Guard for “unsatisfactory performance.” In November, Esteban Santiago walked into the Alaska FBI office, said he was being controlled by U.S. intelligence. He was briefly institutionalized, and his gun was seized. But law enforcement authorities then returned his gun to him about a month later. CNN is reporting Santiago used the same gun during Friday’s attack, which he had checked into his baggage legally during his flight from Alaska to Fort Lauderdale. This is Santiago’s brother Bryan.
BRYAN SANTIAGO: [translated] He went to the FBI offices in Alaska, Anchorage, Alaska, to explain to them what he was seeing, the voices he was hearing, that the government was writing to him in secret code for him to do certain things. It’s their fault, because there are people who never go to the government to ask for help. And when a barbaric act like this happens and when they evaluate them, the psychologists and psychiatrists understand that their mind isn’t well. What more that a person who went ahead of time to explain the situation? They knew it was going to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: Esteban Santiago also has a history of domestic violence. Last January, his then-girlfriend told prosecutors he threatened her, broke down the bathroom door where she was hiding, hit and strangled her. He was later arrested and released on the condition he’d avoid all contact with the victim — terms he would later violate.
Friday’s shooting came as lawmakers in Florida were preparing to consider legislation that would loosen prohibitions on firearms in Florida by eliminating some of the state’s gun-free zones, which currently include airport terminals.
For more, we’re going to Florida, where we’re joined by Boynton Beach — from Boynton Beach by Thomas Gabor, author of Confronting Gun Violence in America, his new piece for the Sun Sentinel headlined “Expanding gun rights won’t save us from more mass shootings.” And via Democracy Now! video stream, we’re joined by Richard Pérez-Peña, a reporter covering breaking news for the national desk of The New York Times. He co-wrote the article, “In Year Before Florida Shooting, Suspect’s Problems Multiplied.”
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Richard, let’s begin with you. A really extensive piece that you and your colleagues did looking at Esteban Santiago’s background and what happened that led to Friday. Can you lay it out for us?
RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA: Well, there was that incident in January that you referred to, where he — January of last year, where his girlfriend said that he had strangled her, struck her, broke down a bathroom door in a sort of fit of rage. That case was sort of put on hold, where the charges were going to be dismissed as long as he stayed out of trouble. But since then, there had been three other domestic disturbance calls to his home, none of which resulted in an arrest. The Anchorage police chief said that there wasn’t probable cause in those cases.
His family members said that he had been sort of different, you know, not as well mentally ever since returning from Iraq in 2011. But it seems as though the real unraveling, you know, mentally, just took place in the last year or so. He was discharged from the Alaska National Guard in August. And this is a guy who, when he was serving with the Puerto Rico National Guard, including in Iraq, had won a number of commendations. So, clearly, something had changed in him. And then, finally, there was this episode in November where he actually went to the FBI and said that he was hearing voices and that the CIA and ISIS were trying to control his mind. And at least temporarily, he was put in a hospital, and his gun was taken away.
AMY GOODMAN: So, he’s hospitalized. His gun is taken away. He’s held for what? Four days?
RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA: Four days.
AMY GOODMAN: And then what happened? Then what happened?
RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA: You know, the problem with this story is that, you know, people sort of assume that if you’re crazy, you can’t have a gun; if you’re crazy, you get put in a hospital. Involuntary commitment is hard to do. If the person doesn’t want to be there, you actually — you need an adjudication that the person is a danger to himself or others. You need a formal, you know, court ruling to that effect. And in most states, for the gun rights to be taken away, you need the same kind of adjudication. And that didn’t happen in this case.
AMY GOODMAN: So, he wasn’t put on any law enforcement watchlist or on the federal no-fly list.
RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA: No.
AMY GOODMAN: Even with his history of domestic violence and strangling his former partner —
RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: — once he was released from the institution, the police brought his gun back to him?
RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA: He went back to the Anchorage police and asked for the gun back. And according to the timeline given by the police chief, he asked for it a couple of times, and it was about a month later that it was given back to him.
AMY GOODMAN: And it was that gun that he brought with him on the flight. And this also might surprise many people, aside from that whole story, that you can take a gun on a flight through your baggage.
RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA: Yeah, most airlines will allow this. It’s perfectly legal under federal law. You have to have it in a — unloaded, in a locked container, in checked baggage, obviously not in carry-on. But, yeah, it’s not only legal, it’s a fairly common practice. Non-gun owners aren’t aware of this, but it happens all the time.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, your understanding, once he made it to the Fort Lauderdale airport, this being the only thing he carried in his baggage —
RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: He went into the bathroom and took it out and came out and opened fire on his fellow passengers, because he had been on this flight?
RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA: That’s right. And we still don’t know any reason why he would have chosen that place, that target. We don’t know of any connection that he had to Fort Lauderdale or, frankly, much connection to Florida.
AMY GOODMAN: Is there some news that he was possibly going to New York instead of Florida?
RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA: I have not heard that.
AMY GOODMAN: ABC News was reporting that. I —
RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA: I mean, he did — he booked this flight, you know, specifically from Anchorage via Minneapolis to Fort Lauderdale.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn Republican Florida Senator Greg Steube, who sponsored Senate Bill 140, which would repeal a gun ban on college campuses, airport terminals and at government meetings. This is Steube talking on The Gun Writer TV in 2015.
SEN. GREG STEUBE: I think that law-abiding citizens should have the right to defend themselves. And I don’t think that right should stop just because you’re walking onto a college campus. We can carry in businesses. We can carry at shopping plazas. We can carry at malls. We can carry at restaurants. But because there’s some law that says we can’t carry on college campuses, to me, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. So, I think that people, especially young female students or people that are military veterans who now are using the GI Bill to go to school, of anybody, they should have the right to be able to defend themselves and others. And we have seen, time and time again, that terrorists and people with mental illnesses use places where they know that people aren’t carrying to target.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Thomas Gabor is also with us, author of Confronting Gun Violence in America. His new piece for the Sun Sentinel, “Expanding gun rights won’t save us from more mass shootings.” Can you respond to the legislation that the Florida Legislature is now weighing? We only have a few minutes, but it is — Florida is not alone in this, though — talk about gun-free zones and where these guns would then be able to — how people would use them, and the whole notion that you fight the violence, gun violence, with gun violence.
THOMAS GABOR: Yes. This is ironic that this is our second major mass shooting in Florida in about a half a year, and we’re looking at expanding gun rights. And this is — there has been a continuous pattern of increasing gun rights in Florida. And, you know, as far as — Senator Steube mentioned that gun-free zones, in particular, get targeted. Well, first of all, an airport is not a gun-free zone. There’s both armed and unarmed security there. But a recent study of over 110 incidents, mass murders since 1966, show that only 13 percent occurred in areas where guns were prohibited. So it’s a complete myth.
And there are so many perils involved by bringing armed civilians into congested and confined areas such as an airport. You know, it’s very challenging even for experienced law enforcement officers, who get extensive and ongoing training, to respond and engage active shooters without bystanders getting hurt, without having armed civilians, who receive, really, virtually no training here in Florida. We have 1.7 million gun carriers in Florida, or individuals who are licensed to carry guns, and the courses that are being offered are woefully inadequate. There are no tests as far as their knowledge of the law is concerned and when lethal force is appropriate. There are no tests as far as their marksmanship and judgment is concerned. So, we’re setting ourselves up for even greater catastrophe than we’ve already seen recently.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. We’ll certainly continue to follow this issue. Thomas Gabor, Confronting Gun Violence in America is his book. And Richard Pérez-Peña co-wrote the piece, that we’ll link to in The New York Times, “In Year Before Florida Shooting, Suspect’s Problems Multiplied.”
When we come back, we’ll look at a new exposé by The Intercept, which reveals the darker side of the elite military unit SEAL Team 6. National security reporter Matthew Cole of The Intercept spent more than two years investigating accounts of ghastly atrocities committed by members of the unit, including mutilating corpses, skinnings and attempted beheadings. Stay with us.