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Will metal detectors keep our movie theaters safe?

Louisiana tragedy has security experts (and film lovers) wondering again about multiplex safety

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Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images file

We all know about the senseless and tragic events of Thursday, July 23: During a showing of Amy Schumer’s hit comedy Trainwreck in Lafayette, La., 59-year-old John Houser opened fire, injuring nine people and killing two before turning the gun on himself. The news came one week after James Holmes was convicted of murder for the 2012 attack that killed 12 at an Aurora, Colo., multiplex, and it served as a reminder that we’ve yet to resolve the issue of safety at one of our beloved community spaces.

“One of the reasons we make these movies,” director Judd Apatow said in a statement to EW, “is because the world can be so horrifying and we all need to laugh just to deal with it. So to have this happen in a room where people were smiling and laughing devastates me. We, as a country, need to find a way to do better.”

But the discussion of how to do better will be a long and painful one. Louisiana state representative Barbara Norton has called for metal detectors in theaters, but that plan, according to Howard Levinson of Expert Security Consulting, is implausible. “They cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to install, staff, and supervise, and patrons don’t feel safer when they walk into a movie theater lobby and see them,” he says. Furthermore, Levinson explains, “The cost will be felt by the customer in higher ticket prices. Ask someone today if they’ll pay three dollars more per ticket to go a theater with metal detectors versus the theater across the street without them. They might say, ‘Yes, I will pay the extra money,’ but will their answer will be the same in six months?”

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Currently there are fewer than 50 metal detectors in movie theaters nationwide, concentrated in urban areas such as Detroit, for example, or Valley Stream, N.Y., which passed a measure to install them in 1991 after a shooting during The Godfather Part III left one person dead. But they are not a proven method of prevention. As Levinson points out, “James Holmes entered the Aurora theater through the back exit door. It wouldn’t have mattered if that theater had metal detectors.”

The National Association of Theatre Owners did not respond to requests for comment about security strategies going forward, but Levinson suggests a greater emphasis on existing methods, such as alarmed exits, camera surveillance, theater lights that turn on in an emergency, and better training of employees to spot red-flag behavior.

Others experts emphasize the significance of professional guards standing watch to aid those behind the concessions stand. “People with bad ideas usually check out the place first,” says John Devino of Global Security Services, which has posted 500 armed guards, made up mostly of retired law enforcement officers, at theaters across the U.S. “We’re a deterrence.”

Even those measures aren’t foolproof. And the debate about how to best protect ourselves in community spaces will continue. Says Levinson: “There’s no easy answer. There’s no easy fix. I wish there were, but there’s not.”

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