With the spike in U.S. gun ownership comes more and more "forgotten" weapons at one of the few places where people can guarantee they're going to be searched for weapons.
TSA officers have stopped more armed passengers trying to board flights at Orlando International Airport than at any other Florida airport, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
The last attempt was Sunday morning, when a St. Augustine traveler carrying a loaded .22-caliber pistol was arrested when he passed a carry-on bag through an X-ray scanner, records show.
“It’s mine,” 66-year-old Ronald Eitel told a TSA agent. “I’m sorry, I forgot it was in there.”
That kind of apology is routine.
Eitel was the 19th person at OIA arrested this year or issued an at-large charging affidavit for “carrying a firearm in a place prohibited by law,” records show.
What many admit, including the last five nabbed at OIA, is that they are among the 1 million-plus Floridians with valid state carry-concealed-weapon permits — a number that has doubled in the past five years.
One of the warnings included in concealed-weapons-permit classes is that airports are off-limits and a guaranteed place to get arrested for carrying a firearm. Because CWP holders’ names are not public, it’s impossible to tell what proportion of those caught with guns at airports hold the permits.
But a Florida Second Amendment activist acknowledges they probably account for most of the cases.
“It’s unfortunate people are not taking enough care for what they’re packing in their bags. They pretty much forget they’re carrying a firearm,” said Sean Caranna, founder of the Florida Carry organization, which lobbies for a wide range of self-defense issues. “But they represent a minuscule percentage rather than the majority who follow the law. Of course they know you can’t carry through a TSA checkpoint.”
Texas and Florida, two states with the highest numbers of concealed-weapon-permit holders, led the U.S. in the number of guns seized at airports in 2012, according to a study by the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative at Northwestern University.
The study found TSA seized 255 guns in Texas and 129 in Florida last year.
The country’s busiest airport — Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, with 95.5 million passengers last year — also had the highest number of guns seized: 97.
The lowest numbers of guns seized were at airports in states that heavily restrict concealed-weapon permits.
At New York City’s two airports — which handled 75 million passengers between them last year — TSA reported seizing one gun at John F. Kennedy International Airport and three guns at LaGuardia Airport.
By comparison, at OIA, which handled 35.3 million passengers last year, TSA seized 40 guns.
Nationwide, 1,525 firearms were seized at airports last year. Of those, 85 percent were loaded — and 26 percent were loaded and had a cartridge in the chamber ready to fire. The most frequently seized guns were .380-caliber, 9 mm and .38-caliber pistols. Those three types made up a little more than half of all guns confiscated, according to the Medill initiative.
And those arrested with guns paid $1.8 million in fines to the federal government last year, according to TSA.
Federal regulations make it illegal for anyone to be armed aboard a commercial flight except federal air marshals, pilots who have received TSA training along with a TSA-issued firearm and some law-enforcement officers with prior TSA vetting and approval.
To avoid arrest, a trip to jail and court costs, Florida TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz advises gun owners traveling by air to “to unpack before packing to be sure you do not have prohibited items such as guns in your carry-on bags.”
According to a TSA advisory, “Travelers may only transport UNLOADED firearms in a locked, hard-sided container in or as checked baggage. All firearms, ammunition and firearm parts, including firearm frames and receivers, are prohibited in carry-on baggage.”
Eitel, the latest gun owner arrested at OIA, was booked into the Orange County Jail on a misdemeanor charge of carrying a firearm in a place prohibited by law and was released on $500 bond.
Guns seized at Florida airports so far in 2013:
- Orlando International Airport: 19
- Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport: 18
- Tampa International Airport: 16
- Jacksonville International Airport: 13
- Miami International Airport: 11