Effective Metal Detection to Prevent Shootings in Movie Theaters Could Prove to be Challenging

There have been a number of mentions in the media about the use of metal detectors at movie theaters in the wake of the deadly shooting in Aurora, Colorado at a screening for the new “Batman” movie.  The question being asked often relates to whether or not metal detectors would have prevented alleged aggressor James Holmes from carrying out the attack.  The facts of the case are still based on media accounts and are thus may not prove to be accurate once the investigation is completed. At the same time, this is a logical and common question.  This question frequently arises in the wake of shootings in other settings such as schools, universities, casinos, shopping malls and other venues where large groups of people gather.

Having been extensively involved with evaluation and testing of entry point metal detection checkpoints, development of metal detection programs, training of staff and actually using walk through and hand held metal detectors, there are a number of challenges and potential weaknesses of metal detection approaches for movie theaters.  For example, one of the things I see often are metal detection checkpoints that are easily beaten because they are more of a façade of security than a properly run checkpoint.  One of the things we do for clients is to attempt to sneak either real or simulated firearms through metal detection checkpoints.  I have also conducted different types of evaluations to gauge the reliability of metal detection programs such as the metal detection program at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games and I have evaluated metal detection programs as an expert witness conducting forensic evaluations after school shootings have occurred in schools using metal detectors.

This perspective often makes it easy to go through a metal detection checkpoint and determine whether an aggressor could likely beat the checkpoint and get a weapon into an area protected by metal detection.  For example, I have visited the Georgia Aquarium on several occasions and feel confident that I could get a gun into the venue in spite of their use of metal detectors.  This is because like many facilities reliant upon metal detectors, the method they use to screen visitors has gaps which can be identified and exploited easily. While the efforts they have in place will likely deter some people who might otherwise carry a weapon into the venue, a determined violator who plans on carrying out a shooting in the aquarium could easily do so.  For example, unarmed personnel operate the metal detectors.  I also have seen instances where people are badly backed up posing a danger of a shift in the point of attack to focus on people who are waiting to be screened because inadequate numbers of personnel are used for screening. 

A good example of this would be the Warner Robins Air Force Base air show this year.  At the time I went through the checkpoint, the wait was more than one hour and again, I could have easily smuggled a handgun through the checkpoint with little chance of detection had I been a determined violator.  Though the screening process would likely have discovered a rifle or shotgun, the cursory visual inspection of hand carry items I observed was even weaker than one inspection where I was able to smuggle four handguns into a school district office building two years ago.

This means that an aggressor could easily simply shoot his or her way through the checkpoint as occurred in the Red Lake Minnesota school shooting.  In addition, the security officers who have screened me have never thoroughly examined hand carry items like purses and camera cases when I have gone through the checkpoint.  I have twice been able to get four guns through school district walk through metal detection checkpoints in this manner.  I was also able to carry my Glock 17 service pistol and two extra magazines (total of 52 rounds) through a checkpoint at a university while attending a graduation ceremony for one of my police officers while I was a police chief.  Though  it was lawful for me to do so, I had intended to tell  the police officer working the metal detector  that  I had a weapon and show him my credentials when he simply waved me through the detector assuming that my umbrella set the unit off.

There are many instances where entry point metal detection is performed properly and with a fairly high degree of reliability.  I have seen metal detection programs work well in schools, courthouses, places of worship, airports and other settings.  There are other approaches that have worked well in schools and other settings  that have relevance for movie theaters.  Pattern matching and recognition and visuatl weapons screening can easily be implemented in any setting where crowds gather and are relatively inexpensive concepts to implement.  As the dialogue about metal detectors arises when these tragic types of events occur, I hope that the discussions are well-informed and thoughtful.  Poorly implemented metal detection approaches can be and have been beaten by determined violators and implementing well-intentioned but ineffective versions of the strategy could prove to be a fatal approach.


Visual weapons screening training for schools

About Michael Dorn

Michael Dorn serves as the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a non-profit school safety center. The author of 27 books on school safety, Michael’s campus safety work has taken him to 11 countries over the past 34 years.