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That Loaded Gun in My Carry-On? Oh, I Forgot

Gun Control
Mike Kemp | Getty Images
Gun Control

The list of potentially lethal weapons was certainly eye-opening: 47 guns (38 of them loaded, including six with rounds in their chambers), three inert hand grenades, supplies of black powder, hunting knives, timing fuses and a sword.

Then, consider that the list was compiled by the Transportation Security Administration, of weapons found in airline travelers’ carry-on bags in the seven days that ended on Sept. 20.

In fact, the T.S.A. says the number of guns found at airport security checkpoints has been steadily rising for the last couple of years. Through Friday, 1,105 guns have been found this year, a pace that is higher than last year’s. In 2011, the total was 1,320, up from 1,123 in 2010, the agency says.

Security experts attribute the increase to two factors: a rise in gun sales and the sharp growth of so-called right-to-carry laws across the country that significantly relax regulations on carrying guns in many areas of public life, from colleges to hospitals.

Invariably, according to the T.S.A., travelers at airports with guns in their carry-on bags say they simply forgot they had them. “It’s almost always inadvertent rather than intentional,” said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the agency.

Like other professionals in security, law enforcement and firearms safety, Mr. Castelveter was baffled by how anyone could forget that they were carrying a gun. “I’m a Vietnam vet, and when I went through training I was taught that my gun was my best friend — and God forbid you should ever lose sight of that fact. I would never, ever not know that I have a gun in my bag.”

Yet that was the exactly the excuse offered by a 27-year-old flight attendant who was stopped at a checkpoint at the Philadelphia airport on Sunday. The flight attendant, arriving for work on a US Airways flight, had a valid handgun permit — but of course, not a permit to carry it on an airplane. As it routinely does in such cases, the T.S.A. notified local law enforcement. A Philadelphia police officer who responded tried to unload the 38-caliber handgun weapon but instead accidentally fired it. No one was hurt, and the flight attendant was issued a summary citation for disorderly conduct.

It could have seemed like a Keystone Kops episode. Instead, it occurred as air travel has become increasingly tense. The potential for trouble posed by prohibited guns on crowded airplanes is obvious, even beyond any overt issues of terrorism or premeditated crime.

Except in rare instances where T.S.A. officials believe the Federal Bureau of Investigation needs to be notified, local law enforcement officials usually handle reports of guns at airport checkpoints.

“All we’re permitted to do is confiscate the weapon and call law enforcement agents, who then will take custody of it and determine whether or not you’re arrested,” said Mr. Castelveter, who is part of the security agency’s effort to notify local news media to aggressively publicize reports of guns and other prohibited weapons being found at checkpoints.

The growing number of guns being found at airports dovetails with the growth in firearms sales nationally. Last year, requests for background checks for firearms sales submitted under the National Instant Criminal Background Check System of the F.B.I. totaled 16.4 million, up from 14.4 million in 2010 and 8.9 million in 2001, according to F.B.I. data.

But firearms safety experts also suspect that some people new to firearms possession may not have basic weapons education, which used to be a stronger focus of gun advocacy groups like the National Rifle Association.

Guns at airport checkpoints reflect “the pervasiveness of concealed-carry weapons, which have gone up enormously in the last 10 years because concealed permits have got easier to get,” said Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, a Washington research group that promotes what it refers to as centrist views on “divisive social issues,” among them constitutional gun rights.

"It becomes second nature in kind of a bad way."

“When people become accustomed to carrying their firearms everywhere they go, even in places like churches and schools in certain states, they can just simply forget they have them,” Mr. Bennett said. “Because concealed-carry permits are now so easy to get, it becomes second nature in kind of a bad way — instead of being thought of as a really significant act — carrying any firearm around.”

Finding the T.S.A. screener digging a gun out of your carry-on bag at the airport “does get to the heart of the matter, in that it shows a lack of focused training” in gun handling, said Ron Danielowski, a former Marine marksman and security consultant in the Middle East, and a founder of Pulse O2DA Firearms Training, an Illinois company that provides intensive weapons and self-defense instruction.

Mr. Danielowski echoed the advice on the T.S.A.’s blog that people can travel with a firearm in a checked bag, provided the airline is notified in advance and the weapon is contained in a hard-locked case. But he and other firearms advocates note that conflicting state and local laws can still cause problems, even for those who comply with the federal regulations, if they arrive with a gun in a location that has different rules.

“That’s a huge mess,” he said of conflicting federal, state and local gun laws that sometimes catch a person otherwise legally transporting a gun. “We’re trying to address that on a local, democratic level. But the first thing right now is, if we’re going to travel with a firearm and plan to go through other states and jurisdictions, we need to make sure that we’re compliant. That’s on us.”

The T.S.A. intends to continue to focus attention on guns at checkpoints, even though Mr. Castelveter said that airports themselves often object because of the effect of the topic on the flying experience.

Once a gun is found, assuming there is no indication of a federal crime, local laws apply. In some locations, “if you come to the checkpoint with a weapon and law enforcement gets involved, they’ll just tell you take it back to your car, because you’re in a state where you’re allowed to carry one” in most places. “But do that in a place like New York and you could be in Rikers Island in about 30 seconds,” Mr. Castelveter said.

“The interesting thing to me is all of these items, from handguns to brass knuckles, a passenger could take from Point A to Point B if it was properly checked” rather than carried through the airport, said Nico Melendez, a T.S.A. official in Los Angeles who posts regularly on the agency’s blog.

“Gun owners should all know where their weapons are, for our own safety and for the safety of those we live with and those around us,” Mr. Melendez said. “I always know where mine is. It’s really kind of basic. Weapons are dangerous.”

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