An informational screen, center, warns travelers to not carry weapons through the security checkpoint in this Aug. 29, 2013, file photo at Orlando International Airport.
Photo credit: Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/MCT
ORLANDO, Fla. — Anyone who tries to board a flight with a gun at Orlando International Airport almost certainly faces arrest. It won’t matter if the person has a concealed-weapon permit or simply forgot the pistol was in a carry-on.
The same is true at airports in Dallas, Atlanta and Chicago.
But get caught with a gun at Jacksonville’s airport, and you’re equally certain to walk free. Same goes for airports in Phoenix and Denver.
In the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, America’s elaborate counterterrorism program at U.S. airports is a policy hodgepodge when it comes to travelers getting caught with guns, according to an Orlando Sentinel review of arrest policies and 2013 arrest data at 15 airports.
“It will be interesting to hear how the gun lobby reacts to this information,” said Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
“They are fond of saying we do not need more gun laws and should just enforce the laws on the books. If that is truly their belief, they should be outraged … since the poor arrest records indicate a lack of enforcement.”
Mirroring a national surge in concealed-weapon-permit holders, airport gun cases jumped 20 percent last year, when 1,813 armed travelers were caught. The most common explanation was, “I forgot,” according to representatives of airport-police details.
Orlando stands apart from many Florida and U.S. airports by arresting almost everyone whose firearm is intercepted at TSA checkpoints.
Police at some airports simply ask travelers to return firearms to their vehicles or hand it over to a nontraveling companion. Other agencies rely on either state or federal prosecutors to make arrest decisions, unless a passenger made an obvious attempt to smuggle a gun aboard, according to Duane McGray, executive director of the Airport Law Enforcement Agencies Network.
“U.S. attorneys are not going to take these cases unless there’s blood on the ground,” said McGray. “They just don’t have the resources.”
State prosecutors routinely decline as well, he said.
TSA does not have any influence over who gets arrested, according to its national spokesman Ross Feinstein. Those decisions are up to federal and local law enforcement assigned to police the 448 U.S. airports, he said.
That lack of consistency concerns the Transportation Security Administration’s 50,000-plus employees, according to David Borer, general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees.
“Guns are banned from commercial air travel because of legitimate concerns over the potential for mass-casualty incidents like a terrorist attack or the shooting last fall at (Los Angeles International Airport),” Borer wrote in an email to the Orlando Sentinel.
“It strains credibility when 40 to 50 people a week show up with guns at the security checkpoint and then say ‘I forgot.’ They didn’t forget their ticket. They didn’t forget their pants. They’ve been on notice for over 12 years that guns are not permitted and it’s time they be held responsible for violating the law.”
A national authority on terrorism disagrees.
“I’ve always had this absurd belief in a certain amount of common sense,” said John Mueller, Woody Hayes Chair Emeritus of National Security Studies at Ohio State University. “The chances of someone being a terrorist is microscopic — one in millions and millions. … They (police) are finally getting a certain amount of flexibility.”
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Orlando’s current zero-tolerance policy dates back to 2006, when former police Chief Paul Rooney took command of the Orlando International Airport division and learned that some passengers with guns were receiving noncriminal tickets.
“If you’re going to own a gun, you have to be responsible. It was the right thing to do, and it was a clear violation of the law,” said Rooney, who retired from OPD this year. “If you bring a gun to a checkpoint in this day and age, you’ve got to be held accountable.”
Word spread during the past seven years that OIA is tough on gun cases, Rooney said. Despite that reputation, OIA had more gun cases, with 47, than any other Florida airport in 2013, according to TSA (although airport police reported a slightly lower number: 44).
Out of those 44 cases reported by Orlando police, only two people were released without an arrest or court referral. One was an Army master sergeant given incorrect information by United Airlines on how to travel with an unloaded pistol. The other was a woman with an unloaded 19th-century revolver not classified as a firearm, according to incident reports and interviews.
Florida’s other airports follow more lenient policies.
At Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Broward County deputy sheriffs made arrests in nine of 45 cases identified by TSA.
Nineteen armed passengers at Miami International Airport surrendered their guns and were released, but the cases were referred to local prosecutors, according to the Miami-Dade Police Department.
At Orlando Sanford International earlier this year, a passenger was caught at the checkpoint with a loaded .38-caliber firearm. Rather than arrest him, the airport held on to the firearm and returned it to the passenger when he returned from his trip to Ohio.
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Though the TSA keeps track of who gets stopped, who gets arrested and who doesn’t, that information is in a classified database. The country’s airport police agencies keep such data, but that record-keeping also reflects the inconsistencies from airport to airport.
The Orlando Police Department, for example, has such information readily available.
But at Houston’s two airports, a police officer volunteered last year to create a first-ever spreadsheet of weapons detected by the TSA. But all the data were lost after his personal computer crashed.
After repeated attempts to get timely firearms data, a national database was created by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, which collects weekly TSA gun reports.
The database’s creator, associate professor Scott Anderson, said the frequency of gun cases at airports is higher in states with lenient concealed-weapons laws.
The Sentinel’s findings, he said, show that “people carrying guns loaded with bullets that can kill people seem to have a special status, and it’s disconcerting. … Who carries around a lethal weapon and doesn’t know it?”
The Sentinel’s review of airport policies found some parallels between a state’s broader tolerance for firearms and the frequency of arrests for possessing one at a TSA checkpoint.
Arizona residents don’t need a permit or training to carry a concealed firearm. So none of the 65 armed passengers stopped by TSA at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport was arrested. They did, however, face as much as $11,000 in federal fines, according to interviews.
“It’s not a crime, but it is a civil infraction,” said Sgt. Marty Nickel of the Phoenix Police Department Airport Bureau. “There is nothing to prohibit someone from carrying a weapon in Sky Harbor, but we’d prefer you didn’t.”
In Colorado, another firearm-friendly state, all 52 armed passengers stopped at Denver International Airport surrendered their guns, underwent criminal-background checks and were allowed to continue their travels after the U.S. Attorney’s Office was notified.
“Normally, we seize the weapon … and more than that, I don’t know of any that resulted in a criminal charge,” said FBI Denver spokesman Special Agent Dave Joly. “That’s because you have to prove intent.”
The total number of guns detected at airports was significantly lower in states with strict firearms laws. But the ratio of arrests was significantly higher.
At Chicago O’Hare International Airport, nearly everyone stopped for trying to board a flight with a firearm is arrested. That also was the case at airports in New York and Boston.
With more than 66 million passengers, O’Hare was the second-busiest airport in the U.S. last year and had just nine gun cases. By comparison, Jacksonville International Airport handled fewer than 6 million passengers and had 30 gun cases without a single arrest.
Copyright 2014 - The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
McClatchy-Tribune News Service