Police have arrested more than 160 people for illegally carrying guns to Transportation Security Administration checkpoints at the three major airports in the Washington, D.C. area since 2015. But those cases do not lead to jail sentences, large fines or even expulsion from the TSA pre-check program, according to an investigation by the News4 I-Team.
Though carrying firearms to TSA checkpoints is illegal, the agency said it seizes an average of 11 guns each day at U.S airports. The agency publicizes many of those cases, but does not publicly release the names of those arrested, which shields the passengers from media scrutiny.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, the I-Team obtained arrest records for all people arrested at Dulles International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport since 2015 and at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in 2018. Court records do not show jail sentences ordered for any of those arrested locally. Most of the cases were dismissed, or prosecutions were deferred, often with monetary fines as low as $100.
Although TSA said people arrested for bringing firearms to airports in New York often receive jail time, due to New York City’s strict firearms laws, Virginia prosecutors said they don’t seek jail sentences.
"These people are law-abiding citizens. They’ve made a mistake," Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos said.
"I’ve never looked at jail as something required every time somebody is convicted of a crime. That’s just not how we operate," Stamos added.
Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess, who prosecutes crimes committed at BWI, said most cases involve people who are licensed to carry and accidentally brought the firearms to the airport. She said many defendants are given probation before judgment, helping them avoid stiff penalties. Leitess said if any people arrested for unlawfully carrying the firearms into BWI have criminal histories or are illegally carrying the guns, they would be more likely to face the prospect of jail time.
In some of the local cases, the passengers were stopped and arrested at TSA pre-check lanes. TSA Pre is used by frequent flyers who undergo background screenings. The I-Team found a series of arrests at the Dulles pre-check lines in 2017 and 2018.
"The most common excuse we hear is, 'I forgot I had my gun on me,'" TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said. "But if you have a gun for security, and you forgot about it, what good is it?"
Approximately 86 percent of guns at TSA checkpoints were loaded at the time, the TSA said. "So what we’re hearing people say is 'I forgot had a loaded gun with me.'"
Among the passengers recently arrested was a Loudoun County man who said he is a frequent flyer.
"It’s a very honest mistake," he said.
The man said he brought for the flight the same bag he takes to the firing range.
"I didn’t think about it. It didn’t even hit me. Then they hold up the bag, and it hit me like a ton of bricks," he said.
The passenger was arrested, and his gun was seized by airport police. His case was eventually dismissed. He said he paid a fine. But the passenger also said he managed to book a different flight from a different airport the same day, to avoid having to cancel a business meeting.
Here's a TSA demonstration on how to properly pack a gun.