Cinemas Can’t Prevent Shootings (But Are Forced To Act)

By Patrick von Sychowski | August 6, 2015 2:35 pm PDT
Gun shooting cartoon

The shooting in the Grand 16 Theatre in Lafayette, Louisiana unleashed the sort of temporary soul-searching that always accompany acts of gun violence in the United States, whether in a cinema, church, high school, college, military base or other public space. This week saw another gun incident, this time in Tennessee, where patrons where injured, though the attacker was the only fatality. As so often, The Onion had already grimly distilled the essence of these events in an earlier headline; “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens’.”

Of two other headlines relating to the Lafayette shooting that could have been pulled from satirical news sites, “Rick Perry calls for more guns in cinemas following Lafayette shooting” and “US National Rifle Association calls for ban on ‘cinemas’” only one was (the latter). Given the fact that guns are no more likely to be banned than cinemas following this or any future shootings, what is to be done to save lives, if not outright prevent more shootings?

A brief statement from NATO issued after Tennessee shooting affirmed that “[w]hether it is in churches, schools, malls, theaters or other public places, people have the right to go about their lives in peace and safety,” before concluding that, “[t]he safety of our guests and employees is, and always will be, our industry’s highest priority.” So are cinemas doing all they can to keep their patrons safe and just how safe can ‘safe’ ever really be?

Much has been made regarding the parallels of this recent incident to the Aurora cinema killings by James Holmes, especially given that his conviction came just a week before the senseless act in Lafayette. But there are two other legal cases underway in the US that have much more relevance and offer lessons for a way forward for cinemas.

The first is the parallel Aurora-related civil lawsuit of JOSHUA R. NOWLAN vs. CINEMARK, USA, INC., d/b/a CENTURY AURORA 16 and several others (later consolidated) under which Mr. Nolan and other victims of the Aurora shootings sued Cinemark for negligence. A trial date of July 2016 has been set for the Cinemark lawsuits.
In one of the factoids uncovered by the lawsuit, it is revealed that:

…the Spruels’ suit alleges that between March 20 and July 19 of 2012, approximately 99 emergency 911 calls, plus “35 additional calls involving assaults, concealed weapons, disorderly conduct, a shooting, robberies and suspicious persons” pointed to the Century 16 or locations in its immediate vicinity. The above are said to have included nine calls “involving suspicious activity, mental health, fighting and emergency 911 calls” — yet “no security personnel were present” for the ‘Dark Knight‘ midnight premiere.

This case hinges on the very specific US legal concept of ‘foreseeability.’ For example, if there was an earlier (hypothetical) case of a drive-by shooting in the cinema parking lot, that does not mean that the cinema’s management could have anticipated or deduced that someone like James Holmes would ultimately walk into an auditorium, armed to his teeth, and start firing bullets into the audience indiscriminately. Nothing remotely resembling this situation had ever occurred in a US cinema before.

It will also be difficult for the plaintiffs to prove that other mass shootings (like Columbine) are enough to meet the test of foreseeability. Several industry commentators and legal experts have said that it is surprising and unusual that the cases were not dismissed on summary judgement. It remains to be seen if the plaintiffs will prevail at trial or whether the cinemas decide to settle out of court, just to close the matter, particularly once Holmes was convicted.

But now that Holmes has been convicted, the specific elements of the Aurora attack do qualify as foreseeable for future incidents, and this is the significance of the “Trainwreck” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” incidents in Louisiana and Tennessee. Before too long we are likely to also see civil lawsuits filed against Grand Theatre’s parent company, Southern Theatres, and now also Carmike in Tennessee, which will hinge on foreseeability and whether the cinemas had put in place pro-active security measures since the Aurora shooting.

The second legal proceeding is The State of Florida vs. Curtis Reeves case against the retired police officer who shot dead fellow cinema goer Chad Oulson inside the Cobb Grove 16 theatre in Wesley Chapel, FL movie theater in an alleged argument over texting during the film. The trial had been pushed back to January of 2016 even before the judge in the case recused himself after criticising the slow pace of the attorneys. Unlike Aurora though, there is no civil lawsuit against Cobb Theatres.

The second case highlights the fact that every day thousands of Americans go to multiplexes and cinemas with concealed firearms on their person. Many do this with the full protection of the laws in their state, some of which even allow firearms to be carried openly. Some exhibitors have policies that ban anyone other than law enforcement officers from entering with arms. This includes Cinemark, which, as with all of its other theatres, had a ‘No Guns Allowed’ policy in its Aurora cinema, as well as the Lafayette Grand (but unlike its neighbouring theatres). Carmike has a very specific “No Guns” policy:

The events in Aurora, Colorado have placed a renewed emphasis on safety and emergency protocols at all of our theatre locations. Like many movie exhibitors and other retail businesses, Carmike does not allow weapons of any kind, including firearms, into our theatres, except for weapons carried by law enforcement and other security personnel. This policy was in effect prior the recent events in Colorado and remains our policy going forward.”

Cinemas creating a ‘Gun-Free Zones’ will not stop disturbed individuals like Holmes, John Russell Houser in Lafayette or Vincente Montano in Tennessee from bringing weapons into movie theatres. But they can prevent scenarios like that dreamt up by Governor Rick Perry where other armed cinema goers engage a shooter in a gun battle in a darkened cinema auditorium that will inevitably lead to casualties by those caught in the cross fire. Not to mention, state laws make it a crime to carry a concealed weapon into a gun-free zone, so patrons caught doing this will face stiffer penalties than just getting barred from watching the new “Star Wars” film at their local ‘plex.

More guns in the hands of cinema patrons is clearly not the answer – other than for Republican presidential candidates trailing in the polls. What the Carmike Antioch, Tennessee incident demonstrated was the on-duty police officers are best equipped to handle shooting incidents and also respond with the appropriate level of force.

Should metal detectors and personal searches be introduced in cinemas? This will clearly not be legislated and any cinema introducing such a plan voluntarily is likely to risk creating more anxiety among patrons looking for escapism, all of whom have been taking security for granted at their local multiplex. Americans already put up with security screenings in airports and even in some schools. But these are public places under some form of state control, which people have no choice but to use, rather than the premises of a commercial business.

That is not to say that it cannot be done, but are American cinema goers prepared to put up with metal detectors in cinemas? A study by research firm C4 that Variety first published found that:

  • One third of the filmgoers surveyed approved of  bags and purses being checked for weapons before people enter a theater.
  • 34% of filmgoers surveyed thought that lobbies should have armed security personnel and/or a metal detector.
  • Fourteen percent would like armed security in each theater (meaning in each individual screen, rather than in the multiplex lobby).
  • But three quarters of moviegoers still said that they feel ‘extremely’ or ‘very safe’ in a theater.

However, only 250 cinema goers were interviewed for the study, so make of these findings what you will. The fact remains that each movie theatre auditorium will not have a ‘cinema marshall’ the way airlines have air marshals. That is not to say that bag checks and metal wands and detectors could not be introduced in cinemas. They are already common in other parts of the world.

In India metal detectors and wands are so ubiquitous at entrances to both shopping malls and multiplexes that nobody even seems to notice them. The only time there is an argument is when the bag search is used as an opportunity to ban the ‘smuggling’ of concessions into the cinema. It is true that there have been no shootings in an Indian cinema, though cinemas there have suffered other acts of violence and menacing by mobs, while neighbouring Pakistan has seen bombs detonated in cinemas.

But the United States is not Pakistan or India. Americans will not stand for such ubiquitous security and inconvenience. The same sense of exceptionalism that lies behind America’s national gun fetish (or love of the Second Amendment – take your pick) also powers the feeling that Americans should not be encumbered or fearful in their daily public life. This is why it is unlikely that any of these incidents will see a turn to highly visible security in cinemas.

Thus, given that shootings will occur again, that civil lawsuits are more likely to spur changes in cinemas’ corporate policy and that metal detectors and entrance-based security is not likely to be implemented, where does this leave US cinemas? While it will not be visible, cinemas will be stepping up security behind these scenes, partly out of concerns for their patrons’ safety and also to insulate themselves from civil lawsuit when (not if) the next major incident happens.

Cinemas already tend to step up security on occasion in particular locations and for specific film releases. This varies from company to company and even varies from venue to venue within each company. Some have armed and some have un-armed guards. For obvious reasons, no cinema will go on the record to discuss the specifics of their approach. Not just because perpetrators like Holmes are lunatics that can still read and plan, but also because there is an un-spoken fear that cinemas could prove to be ‘soft’ targets for an Islamic State-inspired domestic terrorist.

There is also not a one-size-fits-all approach to theatre security. The physical layout of the theater and the city or town the theater is located in call for different approaches to security. A multiplex situated in a mall where there is on-site security (put any Paul Blart – Mall Cop misconceptions aside) will necessarily have a different approach to a stand-alone multiplex. Security will vary depending on the weekday, hour of the day and even the film that is playing.

While it is not widely talked about, security in US cinemas tends to be most often increased when there are films playing that are gang-themed or likely to attract rival gangs to the same theatre. Gang violence in cinemas is not even restricted to the US, but even in places normally considered relatively safe, such as the Danish capital Copenhagen. Right now US exhibitors will be praying that next weekend’s opening of “Straight Outta Compton” will pass off without any incidents. But let’s remember that deranged white males continue to hold a 100% monopoly on cinema shootings in the US.

Cinemas alone cannot solve the problem of gun violence in the United States. Cousins Amy and Senator Charles “Chuck” Schumer should be applauded for trying to introduce legislation that would limit gun access for the mentally ill. Even National Rifle Association spokesperson Jennifer Baker conceded that “We can all agree that the adjudicated mentally ill who are a danger to themselves and others should not have access to firearms.” Though whether legislation will pass and have an impact remains to be seen.

The same day as the Tennessee shooting the Mayor of Morristown, NJ complained after a man was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, while also wearing a bullet-proof vest and having a fake badge, in the commercial complex that houses the AMC Headquarters 10, but was later released on bail without having to undergo psychiatric evaluation. “Thank God nothing happened. We don’t know what this individual’s intent was,” Mayor Timothy Dougherty commented at a press conference.

What is most sad and dispiriting is how fast media coverage and public interest fell off after the Lafayette shooting. It is unlikely to be re-ignited for longer than the usual 24-hour news cycle after the Antioch incident. And so it will continue until the next shooting incident in a cinema. The death of a handful of people in cinemas across several incidents pales next to the killing of 20 children and six staff members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, which was still not enough to shift public opinion in the direction of meaningful gun control laws.

Mass and random shootings are furthermore only a small proportion of all gun homicides (not even counting gun suicides) in the US, of which there were 12,000 in 2012 alone. According to USA Today, just before Lafayette, 387 people had been killed in mass shootings since Aurora. As an American friend confided to me, “Somehow we manage to find that number possible to live with.”

Patrick von Sychowski
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