Safety concerns sparked by a Colorado theater shooting this summer prompted some local cinemas to begin inspecting their customers’ purses and handbags before allowing them to enter.
And although many movie-goers who were asked about the searches Tuesday say they’re happy to comply — “If it’s for safety reasons, I don’t mind,” Hilton Head Island resident Maureen Rosene said — some called them unfair.
And others said the real aim of peering through their bags is to stop people from bringing food inside.
“I saw guys wearing loose jackets and sweaters, and none of them were checked,” said Hilton Head resident Marianne Wright, who said she had a box of Junior Mints confiscated before attending a movie at Northridge Cinema 10 on Hilton Head. “I’m in support of theaters checking for weapons, but you have to check everyone and have metal detectors.”
Signs near the ticket office and inside the cinema tell patrons the theater has the right to search purses, bags and backpacks and say moviegoers must have them open, ready for inspection before entering. It also posts its no-food-or-drink-policy.
General manager John Snodgrass said Southeast Cinema locations in Charleston have long conducted searches, and the policy was adopted at Northridge about a week after the July 20 shooting in Colorado made national headlines.
Theaters across the United States rushed to implement new security measures, including bag checks, after the shooting during a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Twelve people were killed and at least 58 injured when a man opened fire on the audience at a Cinemark multiplex in Aurora.
Shortly thereafter, the National Association of Theater Owners issued a lengthy security checklist reviewed by the Department of Homeland Security. The list focuses on ensuring emergency plans are up to date and theater staff trained to report suspicious activity.
“(The shooting) increased the awareness of the potential for public gathering places to be a location for violence,” Snodgrass said. “We’re trying to provide as reasonable a level of security for employees and customers as we can practically manage.”
He said employees also routinely inspect the theaters and check throughout the day to make sure doors are properly secured.
A manager a Park Plaza Cinema on Hilton Head said it, too, recently began inspecting bags and purses for weapons.
“People were scared after the shooting in Colorado, and most have said they appreciate us checking,” assistant manager Rachel Ace said.
Attempts Tuesday to reach representatives of other local movie theaters, including Cinemark in Bluffton, were unsuccessful.
Searches of purses, handbags and backpacks has become accepted at concerts, sporting events and other entertainment venues. However, some local movie-goers argue the checks put employees untrained in providing security — including teens — at risk and violates customers’ privacy.
Northridge employees conducting searches are instructed to ask anyone found with a weapon to lock it in their vehicle, according to Snodgrass. If necessary, law enforcement would be called, he said, adding a deputy is stationed at the cinema on busy Friday nights.
So far, no weapons have been found, Snodgrass said.
As for stopping food and drink brought into the theater, the policy is clearly posted near the entrance, Snodgrass said, and no different from a retail store’s use of metal detectors to prevent theft.
“You’re not going to walk into a restaurant and bring in food from another restaurant and eat it,” he said. “We don’t see ourselves as any different.”
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.