Lawmakers at odds on how to handle guns at airport checkpoints

Most are inadvertent offenders — people who say they simply forgot they had a gun in their bag

Passengers go through security screening at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Passengers go through security screening at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 16, 2022 at 9:00am

Republicans and Democrats demonstrated a fundamental disagreement Tuesday on how best to address skyrocketing numbers of weapons being confiscated at airport security checkpoints, with Republicans arguing for more education and Democrats more inclined to embrace higher penalties for offenders.

While both parties agreed that the nearly 6,000 guns confiscated at airport security by Transportation Security Administration officers in 2021 was a problem, Republicans on the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security argued that most offenders were inadvertent offenders — people who had simply forgotten that they had a gun in their bag.

“The people who made an honest mistake, you could charge a million dollars, it’s not going to deter them,” said subcommittee ranking member Carlos Gimenez, R-Fla. “They made an honest mistake.”

He argued that extra signage and education would be the best way to discourage bringing guns in carry-on bags.

Subcommittee Chair Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., argued that the fines — typically $3,000 in civil penalties for a loaded weapon or $1,500 for an unloaded weapon — are “clearly not acting as a sufficient deterrent.”

In November, a passenger going through the checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport accidentally discharged a weapon, causing widespread panic and ultimately shutting down the airport for two and a half hours.

Just this week, TSA officers confiscated a gun at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport and another at Boston Logan International Airport.

Ralph Cutie, director and CEO of the Miami International Airport, and Balram Bheodari, general manager at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, both said more than 90 percent of those caught with weapons said they brought them accidentally. But Jason Wallis, chief of police at the Port of Portland, Ore., testifying on behalf of the Airport Law Enforcement Agencies Network, was unmoved.

“After 26 years in law enforcement and dealing with multiple criminal justice issues, most people, for most crimes investigated that I’ve spoken with, say they didn’t know or forgot about whatever prohibited item was in their possession,” he said.

While some are legitimate mistakes, he added, it’s still, “in my opinion, very irresponsible gun ownership."

“To forget you have a loaded pistol in the bag that you’re submitting to TSA for screening to me is an issue,” he said.

The TSA confiscated 5,972 guns at airport security checkpoints in 2021, breaking the previous confiscation record set in 2019 by roughly 1,500 weapons.

Of the weapons confiscated in 2021, roughly 86 percent were loaded, according to Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO.

The increase comes as incidents of unruly passengers are climbing as well. In 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration reported 5,981 incidents of unruly passenger behavior. Those concerns prompted Delta Air Lines on Feb. 3 to ask Attorney General Merrick B. Garland to create a no-fly list composed of those criminally convicted of in-air disruption.

Eight Republican senators sent a letter to Garland on Tuesday urging him to reject such a proposal.

The GOP letter spurred Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, to protest that leaving such a gap in aviation safety “is irresponsible and political brinkmanship that puts our economic security at risk right along with our lives.”

Her association has called for a centralized list of passengers who may not fly for a period of time after being fined or convicted of a serious incident.

“Homeland security is homeland security,” she said. “Our flights are under attack by a small number of people, and it has to stop. Just this past week, an out-of-control passenger tried to open aircraft doors and charge the flight deck.

“We’ve been punched, kicked, spit on and sexually assaulted.”