People soon will be able to carry guns and other dangerous weapons onto the grounds and parking lots of Reagan National and Dulles International airports, after officials yesterday eased what they said were overly restrictive rules.
Without debate, the board of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority unanimously agreed to permit passengers and other airport visitors to carry guns, knives and other weapons as long as they keep them out of terminals and other buildings that access airfields. Passengers who are taking guns with them on flights still will be allowed to carry them into the terminal but are supposed to make arrangements with airlines in advance, officials said.
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The action comes after pressure from an increasingly high-profile Virginia gun rights group whose members have taken to wearing firearms on their hips in public places to make their case.
Before yesterday's action, the authority barred anyone from carrying what it defined as dangerous weapons -- including firearms, knives with blades longer than four inches, bows and arrows and even sandbags -- from all airport property. That covered parking garages, access roads and several highways near Dulles, including parts of the Dulles Toll Road, Route 28 and the Dulles Greenway.
Motorists with weapons in their cars could be arrested if they drove on those roads, even if they had no intention of going to the airport.
Airport officials said they made the changes, which will take effect Dec. 1, because the rules did not enhance security and because they unfairly affected gun owners who might unknowingly break the law. Officials also said they never enforced the gun rules on roadways because they didn't consider those drivers a threat.
"What we're attempting to do is to more clearly define the areas of concern for us," said James E. Bennett, president and chief executive of the airports authority, which manages operations at Dulles and National and whose members are appointed by the president, the District's mayor and the governors of Virginia and Maryland. "At the same time, we want to make sure our regulation does not inadvertently entrap people."
Officials said they were spurred to change their weapons regulation by complaints from gun rights supporters after enactment of a Virginia law that made it illegal to carry dangerous weapons in airport terminals.
The issue at the airports is the latest in a string of battles in the commonwealth over where guns ought to be allowed. Gun owners have created a small stir by openly carrying sidearms into restaurants to generate support, though opponents say the tactic scares customers. And 30 gun-toting residents walked into a Falls Church council meeting last week to protest a policy that asked city workers to call 911 if anyone carrying a gun came onto city property.
Virginia requires permits for people to carry concealed weapons, but openly displayed guns are allowed.
Gun rights groups said the rules at area airports are still too restrictive. Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens' Defense League, said Dulles and National airports should have to follow state law. He also said people should be able to carry their guns into the terminals.
"The point is, terrorists will not pay any attention to this," he said. "What it will do is stop the people who don't want to break the law."
Jim Sollo, president of Virginians Against Handgun Violence, said the changes don't make any sense. "We think just the whole idea of guns around terminals is not a good idea," he said. "We think it puts additional pressure and stress on police who will probably stop and question a person they see openly carrying a weapon, particularly around an airport."
From January to September, authority police arrested 50 people on charges of weapons violations in airport terminals; eight were charged with possession of dangerous weapons on authority roadways or in garages, said authority spokeswoman Tara Hamilton.
A spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration declined to comment on whether the change at Dulles and National would threaten passenger safety, saying that the agency's main area of concern is the screening area and beyond.
Airport authority officials said they do not have to abide by Virginia law because of a long-standing compact between Virginia and the District, which left the authority with the right to adopt its own regulations that have the force of law.
Airport security experts said the new law doesn't worry them. Douglas R. Baird, an aviation security consultant, said, "It doesn't raise any concerns with me because if you have the authority of the state to be armed, I don't see why you can't be armed at an airport."