Besides creating a potential safety threat, these gun-toting travelers often further jam up already long lines of passengers waiting for security screening.
The drill goes more or less like this: a TSA scanner alerts airport police that X-rays have detected a firearm in a traveler’s carry-on bag. Police seize the bag. The police ask who owns the bag. The bag’s owner identifies himself. The police inform the bag’s owner there’s a gun inside. Shock ensues, usually. In almost every case we looked at, the gun owner says, “I forgot.”
Among the people who have been charged with unlawful possession of a firearm on airport property are the principal of a clinical research-monitoring company, a New Jersey attorney, and a Maryland dentist with a prior criminal conviction. The Maryland dentist blamed his girlfriend for leaving the gun in his bag. A Virginia woman blamed her big purse.
It seems incredible that anyone could forget about carrying a lethal weapon that a) could go off inside the airport or, worse, aboard an airplane, with potentially catastrophic results b) could fall into the hands of a bad guy aboard a plane (and who’s to know if the bearer is a bad guy?) and c) could land the person, theoretically, in jail?
Yet last year alone, the TSA intercepted a record 2,653 firearms in carry-on luggage at airport checkpoints around the country in 2015. That compares with 2,212 in 2014. The TSA seized 20 firearms at Dulles International Airport, 14 at Reagan National Airport, and 16 at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. That compares with nine firearms at Dulles and 14 each at National and BWI in 2014.
Most of the firearms were loaded, by the way. That’s right: most had live rounds in them, sometimes even with a bullet chambered and ready to fire.
[There are different definitions of “loaded," depending which state is writing the law. In Utah, for example, a firearm may be considered unloaded so long as there is no live round in the chamber. Not so in California: there, a firearm is considered loaded if a live round is in the chamber, a magazine or in any other way “attached" to the firearm. That’s the definition that makes the most sense to us.]
So we talked to some experts on memory about this, and all of them were more or less skeptical that anyone can really “forget” something like a firearm. We’ll get to them in a later post.
But in the meantime, as an occasional feature, we thought it might be interesting to hear from the people who were stopped trying to pass a security checkpoint at one of the three airports in the Washington region. So we set out trying to reach everyone whose firearm was intercepted by the TSA in 2015 and, usually, charged by law enforcement officials assigned to the airport in question. Whether the courts are treating this seriously enough is also a question for a later post.
Here are some of their stories, as told from police and court documents and interviews:
Say this about Dennis Stephen Oddo: he has chutzpah, to judge from a police report of his encounter with the authorities at National Airport last year over improperly carrying a firearm onto airport property.
On Jan. 12, 2015, police were alerted that Oddo had checked a bag with U.S. Airways with an undeclared firearm inside. The key word here is “undeclared,” because stowing a firearm in checked luggage is the only to lawful way to transport a firearm on a commercial flight. But you have to keep it unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container. You also have to declare each one with the airline.
But in this instance, the scanner found a Sig Sauer 9mm semiautomatic handgun in the bag. It was loose inside an inner pocket. It was unloaded, and there was no ammunition packed with it. And Oddo failed to declare it, authorities said.
Oddo, 65, a former Maryland resident who now lives in Jupiter, Fla., must be a smart guy. He was a dentist after all, who was licensed to practice from 1978 until June 2005, according to a record with the Maryland Department of Health & Mental Hygiene. How could he have been so careless?
Oddo was already at the gate waiting to board his flight for Palm Beach, Fla. when police had him paged. The officer asked Oddo if he had packed his own bags. He said he had, with help from his girlfriend. The officer asked if had anything that needed to be declared. “Not that I know of,” Oddo told the officer.
Oddo was then asked if he owned any firearms. He said he didn’t, but his girlfriend did. Then he described one that was similar to the firearm found in his luggage, the report says. When an officer asked him if he had packed the firearm in his bag, Oddo said he had not. He told the officer that his girlfriend must have done it without his knowledge.
On to the girlfriend: with Oddo’s help, police called her up. Did she own the firearm? Yes, indeed. She told police that she had left it at Oddo’s place last year. And she told police she hadn’t put the gun in his bag.
The officer told Oddo’s girlfriend that police were confiscating the weapon, and she would have to make arrangements to get it back. Then things became even more interesting.
Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) police discovered that Oddo had been involved in a similar incident at the airport on Aug. 3, 2013. That’s when police obtained a warrant for his arrest.
In 1980, Oddo was convicted of 70 drug-related offenses following a trial in Montgomery County. Witnesses testified that Oddo passed around Demerol, Oxycodone, morphine and other narcotics to friends and associates and presided over sex orgies in his office and home. He was a heavy drug user himself who snapped Polaroids of the good times and sometimes bragged that his family had ties to organized crime in New York, according to Montgomery County Circuit Court papers.
Oddo, who was then a licensed pilot and firearms dealer, was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison. The late Judge Joseph M. Mathias suspended all but 10 years; Oddo applied for reconsideration and eventually served about 16 months behind bars.
Records show that besides being a licensed dealer, he owned 19 firearms and surrendered them for storage following his conviction. Which brings us back to the airport.
How does this guy have a firearm in the first place? And why would he try to bring it through security. We wanted to find out, but efforts to reach Oddo through public telephone numbers, email and the postal service were unsuccessful.
On Oct. 1, Jerlysha T. Williams was arrested at BWI airport after an X-ray scan showed that she was carrying a loaded .38 caliber Ruger handgun in her carryon bag, according to a complaint filed by the Maryland Transportation Authority Police.
Williams, who was taken into custody, was charged with criminal possession of a handgun and violating state regulations by interfering with security procedures.
Williams, 30, of Jacksonville, Fla., told the officer that someone had been killed in her neighborhood so she kept the firearm in her bag for protection, the complaint says.
Efforts to reach Williams by mail, email and a publicly listed telephone number weren’t successful.
On May 2, 2015, same deal: this time, the person with the gun was Margaret Hunt Freeburg, 63, of Woodbridge, Va. Scanners detected a gun in her carry-on at National Airport. It was a North American Arms .22 magnum revolver. It’s a tiny weapon, the sort of thing you imagine someone hiding under a poker table or in a garter. It wasn’t loaded. There were, however, 23 hollow-point bullets in the same small black zipper pouch with it, a police report says.
The responding police officer asked her: did she pack her own bag? Yes, Freeburg replied. Was there anything in the bag the officer should know about, such as “any bombs, guns or grenades?” No, Freeburg said. And then the officer did the big reveal.
“Oh, no,” Freeburg was reported to have said, when she saw the police remove the zippered pouch from her bag. She said she hadn’t seen the pouch when she was packing her luggage for her flight on JetBlue Airlines that morning to Fort Lauderdale.
The report states that she carries the firearm “when she visits her mother,” which on first glance made me wonder about her mom.
In an interview, Freeburg offered the Women’s Bottomless Purse defense for her lapse.
“Women carry big bags and they carry all sorts of things in those big bags. And you never take anything out. You never use it. And you just don’t know it’s there. They’re at the bottom,” Freeburg said.
That might be why, she said, that this happens to women more than men, or so she had heard. But this sounded odd, since women in general are less likely to own or carry firearms. Freeburg rejected that idea: “That’s the only equalizer out there for women.” It is, she said, something only for a “drastic emergency.”
I asked her then, what use would the firearm be if she were in a tight spot and she needed to use it and it was at the bottom of purse.
“Trust me, women know to dig,” Freeburg said with a chuckle.
But Freeburg, who implored us not to use her name, said she was mortified by her mistake.
“Man, I’m telling you: It’s brutal. It is brutal. Because you haven’t intentionally done anything, but you’re punished. And you are punished,” Freeburg said. “Your reputation is damaged. There is no way it’s not, because you sound like a nut: ‘What crazy person would go to the airport like that? What crazy person would do that?’ And it’s not anything like that. It’s just an accident.”
Still. We’re not talking about a TSA-banned bottle of liquid at the bottom of a purse. We’re talking about a firearm, which is an expensive item (hers goes for upwards of $200), a highly regulated item and, of course, a lethal item.
That’s why Freeburg, who has not owned firearms a long time, attended a course to help certify people to receive concealed carry permits. She said she didn’t get the permit because she doesn’t want to carry.
Freeburg said she only ever takes the weapon with her when she visits her parents in a remote part of Virginia. And it was just easy to miss, especially inside a black pouch at the bottom of a large dark bag.
“This awesome weapon I had — I think it’s about a 3 ½-inch thing — it’s such a tiny thing,” she said. “It’s black in the bottom. I don’t see very well. I was in a hurry packing, and just did not remember it was in there. And that was kind of what happened to me. I was late throwing everything in a bag. That tiny black case in a big black bag, and then everything on top of it – I was just shocked. I was absolutely stunned. But I don’t think people really are careless with them. I think they just have things in their bags and just don’t realize it.”
Airport authorities issued a citation and confiscated the weapon. Police issued a citation for having a firearm in the airport.
The experience completely ruined her Fort Lauderdale vacation, she said. “It was the most traumatizing experience I have ever had.”