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A gun in your carry-on? Some are calling for stiffer fines

Transportation Security Administration officers process passengers at a security screening area at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in SeaTac, Wash., on May 18, 2020. With a surge in guns being discovered at airport checkpoints, some security experts are suggesting higher fines and even putting violators on a no-fly list to prevent guns from getting on planes. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press file)

With a surge in guns being discovered at airport checkpoints, some security experts are suggesting higher fines and even putting violators on a no-fly list to prevent firearms from getting on planes.

Airport screeners found 5,972 guns at checkpoints last year, easily breaking a record set in 2019 despite a drop in air travel, and 86% of those guns were loaded, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

Guns seizures are rising as airlines report record numbers of disruptive passengers on flights. Together, that “makes for a toxic combination,” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., said Tuesday.

It’s against federal regulations to pack a gun in a carry-on bag. People who are caught are rarely prosecuted, but they can face civil penalties ranging from $1,500 to $13,910.

At a hearing Tuesday of the House transportation-security subcommittee, which Coleman chairs, airport officials and some lawmakers argued for raising the fines.

Balram Bheodari, general manager of Atlanta’s main airport said fines should rise and violators should be required to attend gun-safety classes. He said Congress should also consider putting violators on the federal no-fly list until they complete safety training, and suspending them from quick-screening programs such as PreCheck.

Jason Wallis, police chief at the operator of the airport in Portland, Oregon, supported higher fines. He said maximum penalties are rarely if ever imposed, and the current fines are clearly not working as a deterrent.

However, Rep. Carlos Gimenez, a Florida Republican, said most people who bring a gun to the airport forgot it was in their carry-on bag – airport officials agreed that's what almost all passengers caught with a gun say – and that higher fines won't reduce the number of guns found at checkpoints.

“I’m not sure where heightened penalties are going to avert that, because it was a mistake,” Gimenez said. “You could charge me $100,000 if I forgot that there was something in there. I’m not sure that’s going to avert anything.”

Coleman responded that people should realize that they are taking their carry-on bag on a plane.

“It’s hard for me to believe that everybody that gets caught … forgot they had it,” she said, “and even if they did forget they had it, it’s still an illegal act and we need to treat it as such.”

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson had more guns detected than any other U.S. airport last year. In November, a passenger whose bag was pulled aside for more screening reached into it, and his gun discharged. Authorities believe it was an accident, but the incident – involving a convicted felon – set off a panicked melee and closed the busy airport for more than two hours.

Wallis said when a gun is discovered at an airport, authorities check to see if it was stolen or involved in a previous crime. They question the passenger, forward information to the FBI, but rarely file criminal charges – it's usually just a civil penalty. Sometimes authorities seize the gun, but more often they don’t, which leads to another safety issue, he said.

The passenger who was questioned for having a gun “missed their flight, and now you have an armed person in a public area,” Wallis said.

Federal rules allow unloaded guns to be placed in checked bags that go into the cargo hold. They must be in a locked case, and passengers are required to tell the airline about the gun.