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LAX Officials Ask Changes in Gun Laws

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Appearing before a City Council committee Tuesday to explain a controversial incident involving their failure to arrest a heavily armed traveler, Los Angeles International Airport officials called for changes in state law and said they already are changing their procedures to prevent a similar episode.

John J. Driscoll, executive director of the airport, asked council members to endorse an amendment to the state law on carrying concealed weapons that would allow airport security officers to make an arrest any time they had reasonable cause to believe that an airline passenger was carrying a weapon.

Such a law, he said, would have resulted in airport officers arresting Mark Lawrence Kulp, who was stopped at an airport X-ray machine and subsequently found to be carrying a shotgun, an assault weapon, knives, a ski mask, a fake sheriff’s badge and more than 100 rounds of ammunition. Although Kulp’s weapons were confiscated, he was allowed to continue on to Minnesota after being questioned.

According to Driscoll and others, Kulp was released that day in part because officers did not actually see him place the bags containing the guns and ammunition on the X-ray machine.

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Without such personal observation, they were unable to arrest him on misdemeanor charges of carrying an unloaded, concealed weapon. Other officials dispute the officers’ interpretation, noting that Kulp acknowledged that the weapons and ammunition were his, but agree that the legal change requested by Driscoll would solve any confusion about the latitude officers have.

The handling of the Sept. 2 incident has mystified many top city officials, who have used it to raise questions about airport security and to suggest that some reforms may be in order. After hearing the Airport Police account of the incident Tuesday, Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who convened the hearing, shrugged and said: “I’m speechless.”

Driscoll and other airport officials stressed that Kulp’s weapons never made it onto a plane. Kulp, who was arrested in Minnesota on an outstanding warrant for threatening police officers, was “separated from his weapons,” meaning he would not endanger passengers on the plane he was trying to board, Driscoll said.

Still, despite the insistence of Airport Commission Vice President Mary Schnegg that “our security measures were flawless,” other officials said aspects of the incident were not handled well.

For one thing, Kulp was carrying an illegal assault weapon, they said, and therefore could have been arrested on the spot if only officers had recognized that the gun was banned in California. Neither airport police nor officers from the Los Angeles Police Department’s Anti-Terrorist Division realized that. Instead, they allowed Kulp to leave, only to see him charged with a felony once prosecutors had reviewed the case weeks later.

Another questionable aspect of the airport police handling of their encounter with Kulp involved his legal status at the time.

After checking with Minnesota authorities, airport police determined that Kulp was wanted in that state on charges of threatening police officers. Minnesota officials were told that Kulp was in police custody here, but those officials declined to come and take custody of their suspect, citing a rule that they only extradite suspects who are caught within two states of Minnesota.

Incorrectly believing that they did not have enough evidence to accuse Kulp of a felony in California and faced with the refusal of Minnesota officers to come get him, the airport authorities allowed Kulp to return home on his own. Minnesota authorities were told what flight Kulp would be arriving on, but they inexplicably failed to meet that plane, said Airport Police Chief Gilbert Sandoval.

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Again, however, police officials said better communication between the Airport Police and the LAPD might have resulted in a different outcome. LAPD rules allow for an arrest to be made on an out-of-state felony warrant, so Kulp could have been arrested based solely on that, said LAPD Deputy Chief Frank Piersol.

As a result, airport officials have agreed that in any future incident they will notify LAPD officers at the department’s Pacific Division before freeing a suspect under similar circumstances.

“The protocol that we are putting in . . . will prevent this from happening again,” Piersol said.

Those changes have been made with little fanfare or opposition, but one proposal for tightening airport security would be far more complicated. Galanter and Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr. have raised the suggestion that metal detectors or other screening devices be placed at entrances to the airport rather than merely in the hallways leading to the gates.

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That might enhance security inside the airport, but the notion raises a host of practical and constitutional questions. On Tuesday, officials agreed to consider that idea further, but did not commit to moving forward with it.


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