TSA: Some folks still don’t get it. Firearms are not carry-on items.

The TSA has stopped a record number of passengers trying to bring firearms in their carry-ons at security checkpoints in the past 18 months. Lisa Farbstein of the TSA explains the proper way to pack your firearm and ammunition when flying. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)
June 11, 2014

The Transportation Security Administration has a problem.

Certain people — people educated enough to learn how to shoot a weapon, drive a vehicle to the airport and travel by plane — are getting caught attempting to bring along a firearm in their carry-on baggage.

On Wednesday, the TSA released some alarming figures about the state of our country: In 2013, more than 1,800 firearms were detected at airport checkpoints across the country, up from more than 1,500 in 2012 and 1,300 in 2011. Already this year, the TSA has found more than 900. So far in the Washington region, 10 have been found at Reagan National, seven at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall and four at Dulles International.

The TSA is so piqued by the rising number of people trying to bring their weapons through security checkpoints — rather than legally declaring them at ticket counters — that the agency held a brief news conference Wednesday morning to vent. And to demonstrate how to properly declare and pack firearms.

“This many years after the September 11th attacks, you’d think people would know the rules. It’d be natural,” said Lisa Farbstein, a TSA spokeswoman. “They’re telling us they forget. You need to know where your firearm is.”

After filling out a brief disclosure form, commercial air flight travelers are allowed to transport unloaded firearms in locked, hard-sided cases as checked luggage only, as can be seen in props provided by the Transportation Security Administration at Dulles International Airport. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

The TSA can fine people up to $11,000 if they’re caught trying to slip a weapon through a checkpoint. Additionally, airport police can arrest them. Some people do properly check their weapons at the ticket counter, Farbstein said, but still get in trouble: They forget that they don’t have a permit to carry a weapon in the state to which they’re flying.

The TSA even maintains a blog, The TSA Blog, which chronicles the tragi­comic discoveries that routinely occur at our nation’s airports. “TSA Week in Review: 18 Firearms Discovered in One Day” was the lead headline as of Wednesday.

And just below that was this uplifting item: “Inert Ordnance and Grenades etc.” Apparently, travelers on U.S. airlines haven’t quite grasped that, unlike iPhones, these objects do not have “Airplane Mode” settings. (Two inert grenades were recently found in checked bags at airports in Houston and Palm Beach, Fla.) Then, the TSA Blog made the earnest suggestion to any hobbyist grenade-keepers: “When these items are found at a checkpoint or in checked baggage, they can cause significant delays because the explosives detection professionals must resolve the alarm to determine the level of threat. Even if they are novelty items, you cannot bring them on a plane.”

The TSA said that most people claim they forgot the weapons were in their bags. In October, NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell was cited by the TSA for having a loaded .38-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol in his carry-on bag. “Before boarding my flight from Seattle to Boston, I had accidentally left a legal firearm in my bag,” Russell said in a statement, according to ESPN. “I apologize and truly regret the mistake.”

In August, Clarence K. Shearer of Millersville, Pa., was charged with illegally carrying a Kel-Tec .380 handgun through a BWI security checkpoint, according to the Lancaster (Pa.) Newspapers’ Web site. Also found in his bag: a spare magazine loaded with six rounds. Maryland court papers indicated that he received probation in a plea hearing in January, the Web site reported. A message left at a phone number listed for Shearer was not returned.

In many cases, law enforcement authorities do not release the names of those charged. But for people who get caught, there is a certain amount of public shaming.

“This is Kathryn Spiropoulos, a 53-year-old woman from Ewing, New Jersey,” is the first sentence of a story published in May on Philadelphia magazine’s Web site, next to Spiropoulos’s mug shot. “On Wednesday morning at 6:50 a.m., say police, Spiropoulos showed up at Philadelphia International Airport carrying a loaded gun and knife.”

A message left at a phone number listed for her was not returned.

In most cases at National and Dulles airports, people caught with guns at security checkpoints are quickly interviewed, cited, charged with a misdemeanor and allowed to continue onto their flight, said Stephen L. Holl, chief of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Police Department. Only after their court cases are adjudicated do the scofflaws get their weapons back.

At Wednesday’s news conference, in a Dulles conference room, outside Baggage Claim 1 on the lower level, Farbstein took the time to demonstrate how one should properly transport a weapon through the skies.

First, gun owners should purchase a hard case and put the gun in the case.

“See, you put it in a case. A hard-sided case,” Farbstein explained, opening and closing a couple of cases. “This one costs $30, but this one costs $13. They can be inexpensive, and you can get a really nice, sleek one. I’d call it a gun­metal black color. And this has a built-in lock.”

(Farbstein deflected a reporter’s question about whether she was interested in pursuing a career in the gun-case industry.)

After the gun is locked in the case, here is the second and final — and very, very uncomplicated — step: Take the case to the airline ticket counter. Declare it. Fill out some paperwork. Watch airport police inspect the case. And, finally, watch the case be taken away with everyone else’s checked luggage.

But even if everyone got the TSA’s message about locking up guns and checking them at the ticket counter, there is another rising problem, according to Holl. “We see multiple cases of people carrying ammunition — live ammunition,” he said.

The bad news for those caught with live ammo? The ammo gets confiscated. The good news? “Generally, we don’t charge them,” the MWAA police chief said.

Ian Shapira is a features writer on the local enterprise team and enjoys writing about people who have served in the military and intelligence communities. He joined the Post in 2000 and has covered education, criminal justice, technology, and art crime.
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