A US army veteran who was receiving treatment for psychological problems opened fire on fellow air travellers at Florida’s Fort Lauderdale international airport on Friday, killing five people and wounding eight others.
The gunman, who was identified by authorities as Esteban Santiago, 26, then threw away his empty weapon and was taken into custody while he lay down on ground spread-eagled, according to news reports citing witnesses.
As of Saturday morning, authorities have not said if Santiago was linked to a terrorist group or inspired by one, as has been the case in recent shootings such as the carnage at a nightclub in Orlando, also in Florida, and San Bernardino in California.
President-elect Donald Trump, who called for banning Muslims from entering the US after San Bernardino, said in a tweet on Friday, “Monitoring the terrible situation in Florida. Just spoke to Governor Scott. Thoughts and prayers for all. Stay safe!”
If not linked to terrorism, the shooting will bring back the focus once again to America’s lax gun laws that allow people, including those with mental health problems, easy access to deadly weapons, even military style assault rifles.
Some of the worst mass murders in recent memory were carried out by people with mental health problems such as Adam Lanza, who killed 20 school children between ages 6 and 7 in 2012, and Jared Loughner, the Tucson shooter from 2011.
Law enforcement officials told the Associated Press that Santiago had walked into the FBI office in Anchorage, Alaska, where he lived, in November saying the government controlled his mind and forced him to watch Islamic State videos.
Agents questioned him and handed him over to the police who took him for psychological evaluation. The case was closed after the routine procedural investigations, database checks and interviews with relatives.
Santiago, who had served in the Alaska National Guard, boarded a flight from Anchorage to Minneapolis and on to the Fort Lauderdale. He had checked in his weapon, a semi-automatic handgun, which he retrieved from the baggage claim area.
He pulled it out of a bag, which was the only item he had checked in, and without saying a word, according to witnesses cited by local media, opened fire on people around him, and kept shooting till the weapon was empty.
Checking in firearms while flying is a routine procedure — hunters, for instance, do it all the time. The weapon must be unloaded, packed in a special hard-sided container locked by the passenger and handed over at the check-in counter.
“I'm at the Ft. Lauderdale Airport. Shots have been fired. Everyone is running,” Ari Fleischer, former President George W Bush’s press secretary, wrote in a tweet soon after Santiago opened up with his handgun.
Witnesses described complete chaos as people ran for shelter. “People started kind of screaming and trying to get out of any door they could or hide under the chairs,” Mark Lea, a witness, told MSNBC. “He just kind of continued coming in, just randomly shooting at people, no rhyme or reason to it.”