Updated Feb. 9, 2021. As with the assassination of JFK and 9/11, we'll all remember where we were on Jan. 6, 2021, as a mob of insurrectionists stormed one of the most beloved U.S. institutions in Washington, D.C. The attack on the Capitol, intended to disrupt the certification by Congress of President Joe Biden's win, resulted in five deaths. But it could have been much, much worse.
Police seized a number of weapons, per published reports. One man brought five guns, 11 Molotov cocktails, a crossbow, smoke bombs and a stun gun. Another had a handgun, an assault rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. One insurrectionist had explosives in his truck, and another entered the Capitol in full body armor.
While this incident did not take place during a typical business meeting, it is a high-profile example of the very real threat of gun violence in group settings across the United States, and the difficulty of prohibiting guns on-site at a meeting or event.
We spoke with Dave Wiggins, former security director for Starwood Hotels, about how to ensure attendee security in an age of proliferating firearms. Read the Q&A here
In Washington, D.C., which has some of the country's toughest gun laws, it is illegal to openly carry firearms. And while concealed weapons are allowed with the proper D.C. license, firearms are prohibited within 1,000 feet of a protest. Such regulations vary widely throughout the U.S., which has a patchwork of gun laws differing by county and state. They range from the stricter states like California and New York, which have banned assault weapons among other restrictive measures, to more permissive states like Texas, which in 2016 passed a law to allow the open carry of guns in public.
In many areas, anyone can legally enter a public space with a concealed weapon if they have the appropriate permit. And while private businesses like hotels can and do sometimes set their own policies regarding weapons on their premises, these are very difficult to enforce.
For meeting professionals, the incident at the Capitol has heightened concerns about gun violence, and emphasized the need to take appropriate actions to mitigate risk.
Hotel Policies on Firearms
In every sector that touches the meetings industry -- hotels, conference centers, airports and more -- the rules concerning guns pose difficult questions. It's a topic that many are loath to discuss, but current events have pushed it to the fore.
Mass shootings, such as the attack at a school in Parkland, Fla., in February 2018 that killed 17 students and staff, have thrust the topic into the national conversation. For the hotel industry, a watershed moment came in October 2017 in Las Vegas, when a gunman shot into a crowd of 22,000 concert-goers from his 32nd-floor suite at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino. The attack, which killed 58 people and injured more than 500 others, was the work of a single perpetrator, a frequent guest at the property with no prior record -- exactly the kind of scenario that security experts agree is extremely difficult to anticipate and prevent.
For this article, M&C reached out to representatives of eight major hotel chains that do a substantial meetings business, as well as to convention and visitor bureaus in the most popular destinations, to ask about their policies on carrying firearms into a venue. The majority did not respond or declined to comment.
Two hotel companies that did -- Hilton Worldwide and MGM Resorts -- affirmed that they do indeed have policies that explicitly prohibit guests and attendees from bringing a gun onto the premises.
"Hilton's corporate policy in the United States is to prohibit firearms on the premises of Hilton-managed properties, with the exception of authorized law-enforcement officers," says a spokesperson for the chain, who added that this policy "complies with all state and federal laws." In states where concealed or open-carry weapons and firearms are permitted, guests can store their unloaded guns in a safe deposit box provided by the hotel until their departure.
But that just applies to Hilton-owned properties. Franchised hotels set their own rules. In that case, "guests should contact the property prior to arrival to determine the hotel's firearms policy," Hilton says.
Guns are "not allowed at any of our properties," says Brian Ahern, a spokesperson for MGM Resorts, which owns the Mandalay Bay and 13 other well-known hotels in Las Vegas. That policy was already in place before the 2017 mass shooting.
"If a guest requests to be allowed to bring a firearm in, we will secure it on our property" for the duration of the stay, Ahern notes, adding that the policy is pretty straightforward: "They are not allowed at all. If you are in town for a show and have a gun on you, you can declare it," and the hotel will take care of storing it properly and safely, he says. Nevada, where most of the hotel company's properties are located, is an open-carry state, meaning legal gun owners are permitted to carry a weapon in plain view. However, Ahern stresses, "we just don't allow it in our properties."
When Guns Are the Event
Gun shows pose an interesting dilemma. Las Vegas is host city for one of the biggest such shows in the nation, the annual Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show (aka the SHOT Show), held at the Sands Expo Convention Center. The sponsoring organization, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, is a group of manufacturers, retailers and enthusiasts of hunting and target-shooting. But you won't see any delegates with firearms.
Despite -- or because of -- its specialty, the group is very clear about its policy for the show. Registration materials state clearly: "Sands Expo Center policy prohibits the carrying of personal firearms and ammunition." Members of the general public are not permitted to enter the SHOT Show, and admission is limited to commercial buyers and sellers in the shooting, hunting and outdoor industry, as well as military and law-enforcement representatives.
While the most recent gathering in January was virtual, last year's event was held in person before the pandemic hit; more than 2,500 exhibiting and 55,000 industry professionals were in attendance. The show is evidence that responsible policies -- when clearly communicated and enforced -- are the best protection, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. That effort should include signage posted where it can be seen by all guests and visitors, says a bureau spokesperson. These measures will continue at the next SHOT Show, anticipated for January 2022 at the Sands as well as the new Caesars Forum, whose firearm policy is similar to the Sands'.
Of course, even when rules are set and communicated, not everyone will comply. Vetting every individual at a meeting would be impossible.
"The idea of a background check for everyone is unrealistic," says Jonathan T. Howe, senior partner of the Chicago and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton, who specializes in hotel and travel law. "You could be invading people's privacy, and who's to say a bad guy won't find a way in?"
Similarly, in Miami Beach, where under state law, gun owners with a permit can carry a handgun in public if it's concealed, possession of firearms and weapons of any kind "is strictly prohibited" at conventions, says Freddie Peterson, general manager of the Miami Beach Convention Center. That policy is always included in the license agreement the center signs with every organizer who contracts with the facility.
What's the Law?
Some 17 million people in the U.S. have permits to carry concealed weapons, according to the Crime Prevention Research Center. But that doesn't begin to describe the scope of gun ownership nationwide. "There are three guns for every person in the U.S.," says Bruce McIndoe, president of McIndoe Risk Advisory, a global security expert. "The problem for the meetings industry is that they literally do business in every state, but state laws vary widely. There's no single policy that would fit all situations."
As for a company policy like Hilton's, "You can put out a blanket policy on guns, but if you are operating in a multistate environment, it may not be legally enforceable in some places," McIndoe says. Further complicating the picture are a welter of different rules on what kind of signage, if any, must be posted to communicate a gun policy.
McIndoe points out that 20 states have provisions in their concealed-carry laws that allow businesses to post approved signage that prohibits firearms on their premises. Some, in fact, dictate the exact size of the sign and the lettering, such as Missouri, which requires that the sign must be in a "conspicuous place" and be at least 11 by 14 inches, with letters "not less than one inch" high. But that leaves many other states that either don't address this or that say specifically -- like Idaho does -- that a sign designating an area as a gun-free zone doesn't have the force of law unless it's a locale like a school or courthouse. (For more about signage issues, see "Q&A With a Security Expert".)
No matter how individual meeting planners and hotel managers feel about this issue, it is legal to own and carry a gun in most parts of the U.S., subject to restrictions like background checks, and the Second Amendment has been interpreted in most court cases as protecting that right.
Developing a policy that navigates this legal thicket can be daunting -- which is the reason many organizations simply sidestep the issue and defer to the local laws in effect. Meanwhile, the laws regarding guns in public places have been evolving, making the issue even more confusing for meeting planners working with venues all over the country.
A Changing Legal Landscape
If anything, the laws pertaining to gun ownership, and open and concealed carry, have been loosened in recent years, following a Supreme Court decision in 2008 that was widely viewed as affirming an individual's right to own a gun.
On the other hand, the move to limit guns legally also is gaining momentum, after a rise in senseless attacks here and abroad (including in New Zealand and Australia, where random violence is rare). In 2020, Virginia strengthened its gun laws, as Gov. Ralph Northam signed several landmark gun-violence prevention measures, including legislation to enact an Extreme Risk Protective Order, require background checks on all gun sales, mandate reporting of lost and stolen firearms, prevent children from accessing firearms, and reinstating the state's one-handgun-a-month policy.
“We lose too many Virginians to gun violence, and it is past time we took bold, meaningful action to make our communities safer,” said Gov. Northam in April when he signed the measures into law.
Few laws specifically address hotels and other meeting venues. In Hawaii, a bill was introduced in the state legislature in January 2019 that would have prohibit hotel guests from having firearms and ammunition in their rooms. The bill's sponsor, now-former state Representative Tom Brower from the hotel-heavy district of Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, was inspired to act after Honolulu police, in a May 2018 raid, discovered multiple guns, 18 knives and more than 800 rounds of ammunition in a guest room at the Equus Hotel in Waikiki. Unfortunately, Brower's efforts did not come to fruition.
When Enforcement Doesn't Enforce
It's one thing to have a ban on weapons on your premises, but if there's no enforcement, someone with ill intent can easily subvert the policy.
"It's rare to see anybody checking attendees; there are no magnetometers [a kind of metal detector] for people coming in," says Joan Eisenstodt of Eisenstodt Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based meetings consultancy. "So who's going to know if you have a gun under your jacket or in your purse or briefcase? And if you are not enforcing the policy, what is the purpose of it?"
Tragically, it was relatively easy for the Mandalay Bay hotel shooter to repeatedly cart a number of large valises -- which held his deadly arsenal -- to his room. That doesn't surprise WorldAware's McIndoe: "Hotels are busy places. You have all of this stuff going in and out all day," he says. "As much as it sounds like in hindsight it ought to be something you'd notice, it was just normal activity."
What's a meeting planner to do? A lot depends on the type of meeting being planned. Some events could be considered private, such as employee-only corporate meetings or incentive trips, where people have shared interests and often know one another, says McIndoe. "You have essentially a closed meeting. It's a targeted set of people, and that has a much lower risk profile." On the other hand, if you have an "open venue," anyone can come in the door.
Meetings hosts might balk at installing metal detectors (see M&C, "Hotel Security: Asking the Hard Questions,"), but checking badges is now standard, and bag checks are becoming de rigueur as well. "Yes, check them, but move it along," says McIndoe. "You don't want to have people standing in line for 20 minutes."
The Bottom Line
While it might be awkward to raise the topic of firearms when negotiating a contract for a meeting, sources agree it should be addressed. "I think the industry, for whatever reason, is afraid to touch this issue," Eisenstodt says. "We have to recognize that hotels and convention centers are public spaces that anyone can walk into."
It's the general openness of meetings, versus the more sterile environment of other gun-free zones like airports or courts, that can make this a particularly thorny topic for those in hospitality.
And while many organizations give lip service to the need for a written security and disaster plan in advance of an event, industry surveys show that most meeting organizers still do not have such a plan, Eisenstodt notes. While some of this could be chalked up to complacency -- after all, how often have bad things happened at meetings? -- Eisenstodt says that the next time, the industry might not be spared, adding, "There are no excuses for not planning to protect people, property and reputation."