Who would try to bring a gun through airport security?
Only someone incredibly stupid, say the people who have been caught with weapons in their carry-on luggage at security checkpoints at Port Columbus airport.
“Hell, no,” a 70-year-old West Side man told airport police when they asked if he knew the unloaded handgun was in his bag in January 2013. “Not only no, but hell no. Only a dumb— or a professional football player would do that.”
Since February, these forgetful gun carriers have gotten a break. Airport police are no longer criminally charging those who unknowingly pack a firearm in their carry-on luggage. In the seven months since then, eight people have been stopped, but none was charged.
All of last year, and in the first month of this year, eight others were slapped with a criminal trespassing charge and summoned to court for the same thing. Gun carriers who aren’t concealed-carry permit holders also could face a gun charge, but none of those charges was filed.
“It goes back to intent,” said Angie Tabor, a Port Columbus spokeswoman. “These are not people who are coming through the airport with the intent to do harm.”
Part of the criminal trespassing statute involves an offender knowing they are in violation of the law, chief city Prosecutor Lara Baker-Morrish said. When guns are found, the owners usually say they didn’t know or forgot they were in there.
“While one might question whether such a statement is accurate, it is still the prosecution’s burden in these cases to prove that they were aware the loaded firearm was with them or were reckless in that regard,” she wrote in an email.
Charges were dismissed or reduced for each of the eight people charged with criminal trespassing in the past 20 months.
The number of firearms found at checkpoints in Columbus has increased: There have been 10 so far this year, compared with six in all of 2013. That mirrors nationwide trends.
Last year, more than 1,800 firearms were found at U.S. airports, most of them loaded, according to the Transportation Security Administration. The agency is on track to find about 2,100 guns this year.
Among the nation’s 63 large and medium airports, Columbus is in the top 20 for the number of weapons found at checkpoints through July of this year. There were 2.94 firearms found for every million passengers at Port Columbus, ranking it 18th.
Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky was 15th with 3.60 guns recovered per million. Dallas Love Field was first, with 6.71.
But both the airport authority and people caught at the checkpoints say the potential of criminal charges — and a steep fine from the TSA — isn’t really a deterrent.
“People simply forget,” Tabor said.
One 52-year-old Lawrence County woman found with a 9??mm pistol in her purse in June told police that she knew full well that bringing a gun to the airport wasn’t allowed.
“In fact, she stated that she had recently made fun of idiots that do bring firearms to the airport, which now she is one of them,” an officer wrote in her incident report.
A nongun owner might not understand how anyone could forget they were carrying a firearm, said Jim Irvine, chairman of the Buckeye Firearms Association. But to a regular gun carrier, being unarmed is what would feel strange. He compared it with the odd feeling of driving without your seatbelt.
“We’ve got millions of people carrying firearms every day in our country, so occasionally somebody’s going to forget something,” he said.
Irvine, an airline pilot, said lots of people are under stress when they travel. Forgetting to leave their gun at home might be one of the things that slip their minds.
“That stress causes people to do silly, stupid things,” he said.
In some of the cases at Port Columbus, women forgot guns in their purses or men left a firearm in their briefcases. Others used a bag that they hadn’t traveled with in awhile, not realizing there was a gun in there.
That’s what happened to Frank Titus. He was at his Victorian Village home packing for a trip to Washington, D.C., and realized he could fit all his stuff in a smaller bag. Unbeknownst to him, a loaded Smith & Wesson .38 special was tucked in a pocket.
“I had no idea the firearm was in that piece of luggage,” the former Ohio State University police officer said.
Titus, 68, said a relative had put the gun in the suitcase awhile ago. Airport police were very nice, he said, and he wasn’t criminally charged, but he paid a $1,500 fine from the TSA.
Only three of the accidental gun carriers the Dispatch reached this week were willing to talk on the record. Most were embarrassed by their mistake and readily admitted to being at fault.
As Michelle Cefola watched her purse slide into the X-ray machine last year, she suddenly realized she’d left her loaded Ruger .38-caliber revolver in there. She told the agent.
“You would have thought I just blew up the airport,” she said. “They swarmed me.”
Cefola, a guidance counselor who was traveling back to Gilbert, Ariz., after driving her daughter to college in Ohio, was charged with criminal trespassing. She hired an attorney, and the charge was dismissed after she forfeited her bond and gave up her gun. She also fought the $3,000 TSA fine, hiring her attorney again to argue it down to $600.
While she didn’t benefit from it, she’s happy to see officers don’t charge mistaken gun carriers anymore.
“To just slap a criminal trespassing (charge) on someone like me was ridiculous,” she said. “Obviously, it didn’t hold up in court because they couldn’t prove intent.”
It was a stupid mistake, she admits, but she’d just driven across country with her daughter and had a lot going on.
“Life is not always that simple,” she said.
Linda Henry thought TSA agents were upset over some tweezers she might’ve left in her carry-on bag when they questioned her in May on her way to Galveston, Texas. They asked the Newark woman three times if there was anything they should know about before they opened her bag.
“There was my hair dryer and magazines and shoes, and they open this little side flap, and there’s this gun,” she said.
Henry, 63, started yelling at her husband, Alin, who had misplaced a Colt .25-caliber pistol years ago. He’d even accused others of stealing it. Turns out, it was in Henry’s bag all along.
“I had no clue,” she said. “And it was loaded to boot.”
She, like Titus, was grateful for the kindness the police officers and agents showed her. She wasn’t charged.
“I do know the next time,” Henry said. “I’m going to double-check and triple-check everything I take.”