Mark Howell, TSA Regional Spokesman, demonstrates the proper way to travel with firearms during a TSA event at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport Friday, July 31, 2015. KENT D. JOHNSON /KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Guns found at TSA checkpoints could mean fine, jail time for travelers

Travelers, be warned.

Starting June 1, anyone who forgets they have a gun in their carry-on luggage will be looking at up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine if the firearm is caught at the security check point at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Until Georgia law was changed two years ago, “we didn’t really have any issues here,” Britt Johnson, who is head of the Atlanta FBI office, said of the “Guns Everywhere Law” that expanded the list of places guns were allowed. The law said gun owners with a permit could take guns discovered in their carry-on luggage back to their cars or give them to someone for safe keeping, and they would not face criminal charges.

“It kind of gave a loophole for those with permits not to be charged,” Johnson said. “We can’t have people show up at (federal) checkpoints with weapons and there not be any consequences.”

The punishment for those people charged with a federal misdemeanor when a TSA agent finds a gun in their carry-on luggage is up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine. People without gun carry permits will continue to be charged with a felonies under state law. Individuals with permits can still carry guns in the airport’s public spaces.

“There’s no need to have guns out there at the airport,” said Tasha Mosley, the solicitor general in Clayton County where the airport is located.

Mosley said one woman simply left the loaded gun found in her baggage in a trash can when she was told she could not carry her weapon beyond the federal check point. And the explanation Mosley often hears from parents is they forgot they had hidden the gun in a backpack to keep it away from the children.

“Hartsfield-Jackson is the most secure as far as people being there,” Mosley said. “I am a (gun) carrier. I have my concealed weapons. But I don’t feel the need to go out there carrying a gun.”

But some do.

A year ago, Jim Cooley created some discomfort when he walked around the public areas of Hartsfield-Jackson with an AR-15 rifle strapped across his chest. Cooley reminded an officer outside the airport that under Georgia law, police may not detain anyone to find out whether they have a permit to carry a firearm (which is required for handguns only and not long guns like the AR-15). He was questioned but not arrested.

John Monroe, with the gun rights group, said the federal government had always had the ability to bring federal charges, so this change in approach is not unreasonable.

“It’s pretty obvious … they don’t like the idea of people not being prosecuted for something,” Monroe said.

Last year, 113 guns were spotted by TSA agents screening bags; 68 belong to travelers with gun permits and 45 were in the bags of people who did not have a permit to carry a firearm. So far this year, screeners have found 22 guns in bags belonging to permit holders, and 26 firearms were discovered in bags of those who did not have a permit and those people were ultimately charged with felonies. The average number of guns found in carry-on baggage for this year and last year is nine a month.

Each time a gun is spotted, screening has to stop until law enforcement can fetch the bag from the scanners.

Johnson said the hope is that by cutting down on the number of guns otherwise “law abiding citizens” forget in their bags, it will be easier to look out for “terrorist and other nefarious subjects” in the long lines of irritated travelers waiting to be screened.

“They only have to get through one time,” he said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.