The TSA, following its usual protocol, didn’t identify Gorka by name in its news release about the Feb. 1, 2016, gun catch. But when a brief article appeared in The Washington Post at the time, readers posted comments identifying Gorka straight off as the national security editor for Breitbart news and also chimed in with some nyah, nyah, nyahs. No doubt more are now wondering how someone who is supposed to be thinking about national security could forget he had a firearm in his bag.
The Wall Street Journal, which first reported that one of President Trump’s picks for a senior White House position had been charged with trying to bring a gun through a TSA checkpoint, noted that the criminal charge wouldn’t necessarily disqualify Gorka from obtaining a security clearance unless he failed to disclose it.
Arlington County Circuit Court records show that Gorka, 46, was charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor, which carries penalties of up to a year in jail and a fine of no more than $2,500. He entered an Alford plea — which means a defendant acknowledges that prosecutors have enough evidence to obtain a conviction — on Aug. 8, records say. Adjudication was set for next week (Feb. 3).
Gorka, who was reached at the White House on Friday, declined to comment.
When it comes to visiting TSA checkpoints with firearms, Gorka is just another face in the crowd. The TSA found a record 3,391 firearms in carry-ons in 2016, up from 2,653 in 2015, the previous record. Most of the firearms were loaded.
The increase in firearm seizures at TSA checkpoints no doubt has something to do with the record number of people flying — and the significant expansion in the number of people who have permits to carry concealed firearms. (The Crime Prevention Research Center says the number of concealed-carry permits has more than doubled to 14.5 million since 2007.)
Still, James L. McGaugh, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at the University of California, who has studied memory formation, said in an interview last year that it’s hard to fathom how anyone could forget he’s carrying a firearm, let alone one that’s loaded. Speaking about the issue in general, McGaugh sounded a little skeptical.
“And they can get away with it, on the grounds of saying, ‘Oh, my gosh I forgot to take the damn thing out,’ ” McGaugh said. “Suppose I had a pipe bomb in my suitcase?”
Our memories are shaped by the way that we perceive an event or how much emotional energy it carries, he said. Adrenaline, for example, tends to make memories stick with people. And yet the best explanation he has for why people bring firearms to airport checkpoints is that people can become habituated to almost anything — and when they do, they tend to let it recede to the far reaches of the mind.
“For me a loaded gun would create a very strong memory,” McGaugh said. “Did a loaded gun make a strong memory for Al Capone? I don’t think so. He was used to it.”
So it’s possible that carrying a loaded Glock might not register much more than wearing a pair of socks — but, arguably, that’s also a form of complacency that can lead to problems.
“A remote possibility is these people no longer think these things are dangerous,” McGaugh said. “It’s like the person who drives 90 mph — it’s the other person who’s going to get killed.”
The TSA has undertaken several campaigns to educate air travelers on the proper way to transport firearms. But it could also do more to deter violators. For one thing, the agency could ask Congress for stricter penalties or persuade prosecutors to come down harder on violators. They could also stop shielding the identifies of people who are charged. It took Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain the basic arrest data on people arrested in 2016 — and the MWAA police, in complying, initially passed along documents so heavily redacted as to be useless. Identifying violators might be a small way to remind people: “Don’t be that guy.”
Here’s what the TSA had to say about that, through a spokeswoman:
“While Congress determines federal law regarding the transport of firearms aboard commercial aircraft, TSA works closely with local law enforcement to enforce regulations regarding firearms brought to the checkpoint in carry-on baggage. Although local officials are solely responsible for the enforcement of state and local laws regarding firearms, TSA initiates civil proceedings resulting in fines. Additionally, if applicable, TSA Precheck privileges are revoked for TSA Precheck members who attempt to bring, whether knowingly or not, firearms through the checkpoint.”
Here’s another thing we’ve become habituated to: people bringing guns to checkpoints.