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November 22, 2005
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It's shopping season. Is the mall safe?

By RACHEL LA CORTE
Associated Press Writer

TACOMA, Wash.- In an instant, the controlled chaos of holiday shopping turned bloody when a man strolled into a busy shopping mall and opened fire on shoppers with an assault rifle.

Sunday's shooting rampage at the Tacoma Mall, coming just days before the start of the holiday crush, highlighted the vulnerability of America's shopping centers.

At malls across the country, thousands of people come and go, often carrying bulky packages. No metal detectors check them for weapons. And there is always the possibility that somewhere in the crowd is a disgruntled employee, a jilted lover or a mental patient on the edge.

"If someone is determined, I don't know that you can prevent it," said Capt. Mark Couey, who heads homeland security for the Washington State Patrol.

But Couey noted that violence at malls is extremely rare.

"I don't think it calls for people to be paranoid or install metal detectors," Couey said. "I don't think the public would stand for either."

In the Tacoma case, Dominick Sergio Maldonado, 20, was arrested Sunday after six people were hurt, one critically. Maldonado sent a text message to his ex-girlfriend minutes before the rampage, saying, "Today is the day the world will know my anger," the woman said Monday.

At the SuperMall in Auburn, Wash., a shopping complex a few miles from the Tacoma Mall, security measures include video surveillance, 24-hour patrols, training for security officers and a police substation. But Dennis Nicholson, the mall's general manager, said such precautions cannot necessarily stop something like Sunday's rampage.

"We can't prevent that individual from doing that," Nicholson said. "In this day and age in particular, I think that the American public needs to be ever so more aware of their surroundings. It doesn't matter if they're in a shopping mall or a sports arena."

In the United States, there are about 1,200 enclosed malls and 44,000 shopping centers with a total of 190 million shoppers a month, said Malachy Kavanagh, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Malls have long been considered vulnerable to terrorist attacks. In the past year, malls in several states have taught security guards how to spot suicide bombers through training offered by the Homeland Security Department.

The risk is not likely to keep shoppers away from the malls.

"It's all about the time and the place," said shopper Deb Kraft, who was walking in the Valley Mall in Union Gap, near Yakima. "I don't think they're going to target a mall any differently than they will target a football game or mini-mart or a liquor store."

Economists say that shootings like the one in Tacoma have no effect on shoppers' behavior.

"Unfortunately, random shootings of this nature are not a unique event," Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at Deloitte Research. "I think until it happens in a material way where there are mass causalities, I just don't think it's something that crosses people's mind."

___

Associated Press Reporter Shannon Dininny in Yakima and Curt Woodward in Tacoma contributed to this report.

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