OPINION: Hartsfield-Jackson, proud home of the Glock-filled duffel bag

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Hartsfield-Jackson Airport routinely leads the nation in confiscated firepower. That’s not surprising. Hartsfield-Jackson is the world’s busiest airport, and Georgia’s “guns everywhere” law pretty much ensures you’ll find them everywhere, including TSA screening stations.

Year after year, the AJC’s airport maven, Kelly Yamanouchi, writes a variation of the same story: Atlanta has, once again, led the league in gun confiscations, edging out Dallas. That’s been the story for eight years running and 10 of the past 12.

Take THAT, Big D!

A story last week noted that Hartsfield is once again in the lead for goofs with guns getting caught sending weaponry up the TSA conveyor belt — 214 by midyear.

It makes perfect sense. More folks are carrying, and more people are carrying on luggage. Put those two together and you get red lights blinking at TSA security stations.

Sure, anyone with functioning brain cells knows it’s a no-no to bring a gun onto a plane. But many Georgians have gotten so comfortable carrying their firearms everywhere that they’re simply lulled into gun complacency: Somehow they forgot a gun was in their backpack.

With “permitless carry” in Georgia, toting one’s pistol has “become a daily routine,” said Mark Howell, a TSA spokesman. “If you’re going out, you have your phone, your wallet, your keys, your gun.”

“Usually, when a gun is found (at the checkpoint) they’re surprised,” he said. “It’s ‘Duh, I forgot I had it.’ "

Since 2011, the number of confiscated guns has grown each year, with record-setting annum topping record-setting annum. That is until 2020, when Atlanta’s output dropped off by more than 100 guns to 220 confiscations because of COVID-reduced travel. You could call that sort of a “strike-shortened season.”

Not to worry, Georgia’s armed flying public came roaring back in 2021, with 507 confiscations, leaving Dallas in the dust with 299.

I say “confiscations,” but that’s a misnomer. Georgia’s gun-friendly lawmakers in the past decade have increasingly made it legal to carry your gun, even to the airport. It’s only problematic to try and bring it past a TSA checkpoint.

Time was when getting caught with a gun at the checkpoint meant a trip to Clayton County jail (the airport is mostly in Clayton County).

Attorney Tom Barton, who has represented scores of such cases, said those getting stopped by TSA “are not criminals. They’re business owners; they’re politicians who you’ve heard of.”

Usually they know better. One client owned a gun shop and a range and had also properly checked rifles for a hunting trip. “Of course, he’s an expert, but he forgot about the Glock in his bag,” recalls Barton. “He ended up on the ground at the airport with a knee in his back.”

In 2016, as Georgia law made carrying more and more acceptable, Atlanta police moved to impose federal charges on travelers caught with guns at the checkpoint. According to that policy, the gun was impounded and the passenger had to show up in federal magistrate court.

It was about this time when I was in court and bumped into rock-n-roller Rick Derringer, who’d been caught trying to bring a Kel-Tec pistol onto his flight. The aging rocker was a bit nonplussed by the affair, saying he always brought his gun onto flights, like 50 times a year.

That’s not surprising. In 2015, some agents posing as passengers got weapons past TSA agents in 67 out of 70 times. That’s 95% according to the math.

Credit: Spencer Platt

Credit: Spencer Platt

Two years later, Forbes ran a headline, “TSA Misses 70% Of Fake Weapons But That’s An Improvement.”

TSA’s Howell said people purposely trying to sneak weapons aboard are rare. (In one case last year, someone got caught in Florida with a gun hidden in a raw chicken). Or there was a case of a pistol in PlayStation in Atlanta.

Howell said TSA has learned from those embarrassments and increasingly employs better scanning technology and training.

Actually, there really is no way to know what gets through.

Atlanta police will respond when a gun is discovered at a checkpoint. APD told me an officer will take the weapon and escort the person to the airport precinct. “If there are no indications the traveler was attempting to circumvent security with the weapon and if no other criminal violations are detected, the traveler is released, the weapon is returned to them and their information is forwarded to the TSA and FBI,” APD said.

“Now, it seems, it’s ‘Go out to your car (with your gun) and come back and try and make your flight,’ " said Barton.

There’s no knee in the back, no jail, just some embarrassment and inconvenience. The gun owner will get a letter informing them they face a fine in the thousands of dollars. I’m told that fine can be negotiated down.

It’s a kinder, gentler process. I’m figuring that state legislators will one day pass a law ordering police to apologize to gun owners for the difficulty, buy them lunch and offer them a golf cart ride back to their car so they can safely tuck their weapon away.