Fort Lauderdale and the wisdom of traveling light

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Luggage weighs you down and raises your risk profile

Last week’s shooting attack at Fort Lauderdale Airport gives us an opportunity to look at risk management from a personal standpoint.

Airports are a favorite target of terrorists and are obviously attractive to deranged individuals as well. Part of the attraction is no doubt their status as a consistent no weapons zone; no matter where you are in the world, you can be assured that the patrons at the airport are going to be unarmed. This enforced helplessness, combined with the sheer numbers of people milling about, make an airport a fertile hunting ground for those wishing maximum carnage.

On Monday I wrote about the need to be proactive when faced with a threat that you can’t safely escape. What about simply avoiding the situation altogether?

Do you need to fly?

Avoiding the airport altogether completely eliminates your risk for this particular kind of attack, but of course it’s not always possible to do so. If you’re like most of my readers, you probably make at least one trip by air per year. Many people make a half-dozen or more trips and in recent years I’ve been well above that mark. Though I’m not as well-traveled as some, I still spend far more time in airports than I want to!

To avoid the airport requires some other form of transportation. Driving is one, taking a train is another. I’ve been known to do both, but for most of the trips I take neither is really very practical. There are times when flying is the only reasonable option.

If you can’t avoid the airport, how can you reduce your risk profile? By avoiding the areas in the airport where people are forced to congregate.

Avoid the crowds

While I don’t want to overstate the protective value of the TSA, you’re probably still at least a little safer post-security than you are pre-security. This is borne out by the pattern of airport attacks in recent years, which have all concentrated on pre-security venues. One key to reducing your risk is to spend as little time as possible in large groups of people outside of the “secure areas”.

Look at any airport: the greatest concentration of victims is at the check-in counters and in the baggage claim areas. These are both open to the public, meaning that there is usually (at least in the U.S.) no security to prevent access. Large population, no effective self defense options, and no attempt to reduce access all lead to high risk.

You can reduce your risk substantially by simply avoiding those areas. How? First, by doing your check-in online or on your smartphone. Second, by not checking luggage.

Do you really need all that stuff?

The first is easy, and frankly it’s also soothing. Checking in on your phone or online means that you get first crack at choice seat assignments and boarding. It keeps you from standing at a check-in desk or in front of a kiosk (which are always located in the same area as check-in, which means you’re still in a high-risk zone.)

The second, not checking luggage, is more difficult. Most people travel with far too much stuff and consequently too much, too big, and too heavy luggage. By forcing yourself to travel light — a small roll-around and a shoulder bag at most — you not only save your back, you also keep yourself out of both the check-in line and the crowd in baggage claim. Traveling light is the best way to minimize your risk profile at the airport.

Traveling light also reduces your risk profile at your destination; you don’t have to wrangle bags in and out of vehicles and your attention and mobility are both increased. It’s a winning strategy.

What if you want to carry a defensive firearm?

When the gun makes you less safe

A lot of people in the defensive shooting fraternity fly with their guns regularly. If you choose to do so you’ll need to wait in line to check your luggage, often wait in another line for that luggage to be x-rayed by the TSA, and then stand around again at the baggage carousel. Carrying that defensive firearm significantly increases your risk at the airport compared to not checking luggage at all, and even increases it over checking luggage without the firearm.

So, the question is whether the value of having that defensive firearm at your destination outweighs the risk you take getting it there. This is where you have a decision to make, and while I can’t make that decision for you I can explain what I do and why. Hopefully that will help you make a similar decision.

I’ve flown with firearms many times, and I’ve flown without firearms many more times. People in the defensive shooting world often chide me for electing not to fly with my gun, as if I’m violating some secret gun owner’s pact. The training hobbyists have even said that I’m not “serious” about my safety and self defense. I can assure you that I’m very serious about my safety, which is why I often choose to not have a firearm with me.

How can that be? It’s simple, really: I have more control over my risk at my destination than I do at the airport. I can choose where I go, what I do, and who I’m with. My lifestyle is such that I generally don’t do stupid things in stupid places with stupid people, and I’m not attracted to the kinds of large gatherings that might be the target of a mass killer. In most cases I’m flying for business, and at my destination I’m usually picked up by armed people, am around armed people the entire time I’m there, and am taken back to the airport by armed people. I’m about as safe as I can possibly be!

All of that goes right out the window if I have to check my guns at the airport. I’m forced to stand in line with hundreds of others, completely vulnerable, as I wait to check my guns then wait again to retrieve them.

The benefit of mobility

By traveling very light, eschewing the procedure of checking any luggage, I no doubt lower my risk profile on both ends of the voyage. My increased mobility also lowers my risk profile while I’m at my destination.

If I were to carry my firearm, my in-transit risk would be raised substantially without a corresponding lowering of risk while at my destination. That’s because the concealed firearm doesn’t lower my risk profile at all; it simply gives me a more efficient response tool for a small percentage of incidents. Don’t misunderstand: that has value, it’s just not the value most assume it to be.

A complex equation? For some people it clearly is. Once you step back and analyze what your real risks are, though, I think the choice becomes easier. I have no issue with those who choose to check their luggage with firearms, but at the same time I don’t have a problem if people choose not to do so. It comes down to competing risks and how you perceive your own exposure to them.

Don’t let anyone — myself included — dictate what you should do. Understand the idea of the risk-benefit ratio, the difference between risk reduction and enhanced response efficiency, and how sometimes increasing your safety in one way reduces it in another. Then make an informed decision.

Considering all of the factors, I usually choose to travel very light. I’ll wager some people who were in baggage claim at the Fort Lauderdale Airport wish they’d done so.

– Grant 

Photo: František Dostál, Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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