A Florida airport scene in the 2002 comedy film “Big Trouble” shows a pair of mob-hired hitmen accidentally spilling a sniper rifle from a golf bag in the presence of a police officer. The officer, played by Janeane Garofalo, removes the bolt and tosses the harmless weapon back to the duo.
“This city (is crazy),” the character played by the late actor Dennis Farina says to his would-be partner in crime. “But the police are kind of nice.”
A similar scenario plays out daily at airports nationwide, where an average of 35 firearms a week were intercepted in 2013, 20 percent more than 2012. Of 1,813 guns discovered at airport checkpoints last year, 1,477 were loaded, Transportation Security Administration data shows.
Tampa International Airport ranked 11th nationally in 2013 with 36 confiscated firearms, up from 31 in 2012 and 27 in 2011. None were confiscated the last year at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, while two were intercepted in 2012.
Shooting deaths in theaters and schools have increased awareness of people carrying weapons in public places. The Nov. 1 shooting at a Los Angeles International Airport terminal where a TSA officer was killed and two other officers and a passenger were wounded heightened awareness of firearms and airport security.
“Weapons including guns are not permitted in carryon baggage,” TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz said.
“Domestic passengers are permitted to travel with firearms in checked baggage if they are properly packaged and declared. Firearms must be unloaded, packed in a locked, hard case and packed separately from ammunition.”
If screeners scanning checked bags see a firearm that is not packaged correctly or if the passenger did not declare the gun, TSA will work with the airline to locate the passenger to correct the situation or the bag will not fly, Koshetz said.
“It sure seems like there are an awful lot of people either ignoring the law for some reason, or simply forgetting that they’re armed with deadly weapons and losing track of their guns’ whereabouts,” said David Waldman, who compiles gun incidents including TSA reports for his weekly GunFail blog on the Daily Kos. “But it does happen (at airports).”
Airfarewatchdog.com recently surveyed more than 4,600 fliers, asking if they’ve ever accidentally brought a banned item on board their flight.
Twenty-six said “yes, once,” 23 said “yes on multiple occasions,” and 51 percent said “never,” said Toby Street, senior manager, communications for Smarter Travel Media.
“Obviously, the implications from nearly 50 percent of those polled acknowledging that they got something by security are concerning at the least,” Street said.
Security officials said it can not be determined if the trend toward a greater number of firearms intercepted at airport checkpoints in the past year is a result of enhanced scrutiny or more people carrying guns.
“There is no study completed to determine this, however, what we are seeing is that this correlates to an increase in reported gun ownership and or gun sales,” said Sgt. James Young, a spokesman for the Orlando Police Department.
Orlando International Airport ranked seventh nationwide with 47 guns intercepted in 2013, including 39 loaded and 15 with a round in the chamber, and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International ranked ninth, with 42 guns intercepted, with 37 loaded and 18 with a round in the chamber.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport led the country in 2013 with 110 guns intercepted, including 96 that were loaded and 37 with a round in the chamber.
Arrests involving firearms discovered at airports vary by jurisdiction.
“TSA in all cases partners with local law enforcement upon discovering a firearm in a passenger’s carryon bag,” Koshetz said. “The decision to arrest or press charges is that of law enforcement. TSA in most cases will pursue civil penalties and those are independent of whether the violation resulted in criminal charges.”
Among 22 arrests in 2012 at Tampa International involving firearms at security checkpoints, four people had no valid permit and were transported to jail while the others were released and given a notice to appear, data provided by the Tampa International Airport police showed.
Of the 16 arrests at the airport in 2013, five of the firearms owners had no valid permit, one was a felon in possession, one had an expired permit and all others were released and given a notice to appear in court.
The two arrests so far this year involved people with no valid permits for a .38-caliber and .9 mm guns and they were transported to jail.
“Unfortunately, the trend has been as 9/11 gets further out in time, people are not focusing on the need to be cognizant of what’s inside their bags,” Koshetz said.
In addition to firearms, airport screeners find other types of weapons, such as a razor blade concealed in a cell phone at Tampa International, a TSA weekly review on Jan. 3 showed.
The TSA discovered inert grenades in carryon bags at San Francisco and Honolulu, an inert grenade in a checked bag at El Paso and an inert 40 mm artillery shell in a carryon bag in Seattle.
Forgetting that an item is in their possession is not an excuse, Tampa International spokeswoman Christine Osborn said.
“It is the responsibility of all travelers, especially firearms owners, to examine the contents of all of their carryon baggage, every time they travel, before coming to the airport to ensure that they are not carrying any prohibited items,” she said.