The Facts and Fiction of Mall Security

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It sounded awfully familiar. In late February a group calling itself al-Shabaab (operating out of Somalia) threatened to attack the Mall of America in Minnesota. It was kind of like déjà vu for me; I’d seen this before some place. Then it hit me. That was the plot of Stephen Hunter’s book Soft Target (Simon & Schuster, 2011)! The target: the Mall of America (or “America, the Mall” as it is called in Hunter’s book). The terrorists: Somali gunmen. The victims: hundreds of innocent American shoppers going about their daily lives and government officials who were powerless to stop the killing.

My first thought was “is this for real”, or was it some cheap attempt by some Islamic terrorist group to stir up some publicity but not smart enough to think up something original? Then it got me thinking more about the scenario—both the threatened one and the fictional one in Hunter’s book—and how I would deal with it if I was “in charge”.

Following the announcement of the threat, the news media began reporting on mall security. So just what security measures exist at shopping malls around the country?

The Mall of America is a “no guns” zone—it is private property as are most shopping malls and thus mall operators (and/or their insurance providers?) are able to decide whether to allow firearms on their property or not. Guns might scare the shoppers and a gunfight could break out at any moment…or so the thought process goes according to mall officials. Because the signs are posted, there couldn’t possibly be anyone that would enter the mall carrying a gun because they would be violating the law and could go to jail. …R-i-g-h-t-t-t!—like a sign has ever stopped any criminal/terrorist from taking action. Of course, the Mall of America is not alone in its “no guns” policy.

But malls have “security”! …R-i-g-h-t-t-t!… You mean that guy (or gal) barely out of their teens walking around in a uniform with a 2-way radio hanging off their belt? They are there just to help shoppers find their way around the mall, to reunite lost kids with their parents, or to call for assistance if something serious happens. Most are not allowed to carry firearms. They are not even police officers, but rather “private security” hired by the mall owners and thus they have no authority to act in a law enforcement capacity. And even if the mall has regular police officers assigned to it, how effective are they going to be when confronting multiple armed attackers coming into the mall from different directions? There are unlikely to be enough police officers assigned to a mall to control all of the entrances/exits and confront armed attackers that are probably already in the mall. They may have someone in a central control center that can view all of the entrances/exits and other areas of the mall on security camera feeds to a wall of monitors, but that only means they can tell someone what has happened, not prevent it from happening.

But…but…“we have lockdown procedures”. R-i-g-h-t-t-t!! Do you seriously think that “locking down” a shopping mall is going to help? All that does is keep the victims from escaping the terrorists! While schools may use lockdown to help protect the children and staff, malls are not configured anywhere like a school is. Instead of solid walls and thick doors into each room/store, there are large expanses of glass and maybe a security grating that is lowered to prevent entrance from central hallways in the mall when that store is closed. These are not designed to stop bullets or even hide those inside the store from being seen by those on the outside. Depending on this type of barrier would create a scenario of “shooting fish in a barrel”! In schools, people spend most of their time in the various rooms and only go into the central hallways for short periods of time to move from one classroom to another periodically throughout the day. In shopping malls there is constant movement between stores and a large percentage of the people in the mall are in the central hallways at any point in time. Also, schools practice their lockdown procedures so that students and staff know just what they are supposed to do. And while you could probably do a “lockdown drill” with the mall staff, how do you include customers into that when the customers are constantly changing (i.e. coming and going)?

So what can be done to keep armed terrorists from attacking a shopping mall? You have to prevent the terrorists from gaining entrance to the mall in the first place. Short of putting metal detectors/body scanners at every mall entrance—aka TSA-like airport security—there is not much that can be done to stop them from getting into the mall. Signs certainly won’t do it! Airport-like security would be extremely expensive to implement and it is not something that a mall operator is going to undertake. Once terrorists are inside the mall, they have the advantage and time will be on their side, not on the side of first responders trying to remove them.

The brand of terrorists that the world faces today are not afraid of dying. Indeed, that is their ultimate goal, but they want to take as many victims with them as possible when they do die. In September 2013, terrorists attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. There it took the police and army so long to get organized that armed citizens took it upon themselves to intervene to confront the terrorists and rescue as many victims as possible. In the end, 72 people died when government officials moved to regain control of the mall. Of that number, five were terrorists and another six where Kenyan soldiers. The rest were civilians that happened to be at the mall when the terrorists struck. Over 175 people were wounded. And oh by the way, it was the same al-Shabaab group that claimed credit for this mall attack.

The only thing the terrorists fear is failure. They fail when they are unable to achieve the “body count” they desire and to cause panic. By taking down the “no guns” signs and allowing armed citizens to carry concealed firearms in shopping malls, you significantly change the probability the terrorists will be successful. Now the terrorists won’t know how many armed opponents they may have to face as they carry out their acts. And they won’t know who is an armed opponent/threat because those citizens will not be wearing uniforms but will be dressed like everyone else is. Doing this costs the mall operators and store owners virtually nothing to implement but also greatly lowers the threat posed to their continued livelihood that would occur if the terrorists are able to successfully launch an attack. I would think the insurance companies would come to the same realization.

Gary Evens is an NRA-certified firearms instructor & range safety officer. He is also a RangeMaster-certified firearms instructor and certified School Attacker Response Course (SARC) instructor. He is an Endowment-Life member of the NRA, a member of the Ohio Rifle & Pistol Association, Ohio Gun Collectors’ Association, and Buckeye Firearms Association.