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Flying during COVID-19 pandemic leads to uptick in passenger guns caught by airport security

360 guns discovered at Florida airports in 2020
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Posted at 12:58 PM, Nov 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-13 14:24:57-05

TAMPA, Fla. — As Florida airports gear up for the holiday travel season, they’re seeing more people bringing guns to the airport.

So far this year, Transportation Security Administration officers have discovered 360 handguns at security checkpoints statewide

“We actually had one day this week when we had four firearms at the checkpoints,” said Kirk Skinner, who is TSA’s Federal Security Director for the Tampa Bay Region.

Skinner said many of those guns were loaded and posed potential threats to passengers, flight crews and his employees.

Even though passenger volume has been at less than half of its 2019 volume, Skinner said they're finding just as many guns this year.

The same is true for all of Florida’s major airports, according to TSA.

Guns seized in 2020 through the end of October:

  • Tampa International Airport—57
  • St.Pete-Clearwater International Airport—9
  • Orlando International Airport—65
  • Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport—62
  • Miami International Airport—43
  • Jacksonville International Airport—30

Prominent passengers caught with guns

More guns were discovered at each of those airports in the first ten months of this low passenger volume, pandemic-ridden year than in all of 2015.

“We’re trying to figure out what is it that’s causing passengers to more often come to the airport with their weapon,” said Skinner.

It’s not clear what’s causing the trend, but Skinner said many passengers caught with guns at Tampa-area airports tell officers they accidentally brought them in their luggage.

Congressman Ross Spano posted on Facebook that he was stopped at a checkpoint at Tampa International Airport in late September after a handgun was discovered in his carry-on bag.

In his post, he said he had received death threats in recent years and started carrying a firearm.

After TSA verified he had a concealed carry permit, he was allowed to store his gun and board a later flight, according to his post.

Congressman Spano, through his spokesperson, declined our interview request.

The TSA says anyone caught with a gun at the airport faces a possible fine.

“Whether you have that permit or not, there will be a civil action investigation that could result in a fine of up to $13,669,” said Skinner.

Passengers without concealed carry permits can also face felony charges.

The I-Team found that passenger arrests — which can include felony charges — are at the discretion of the airport police.

Jacksonville hasn’t arrested anyone in two years, but Tampa Airport Police have arrested 25 people.

Among those, WWE wrestling superstar Terri Runnels.

Here's a recent interview with Runnels from Jannette Burke, founder and host of Janette’s TV & Janette’s TV Podcast.

A police report says officers found a loaded Glock 26 handgun in Runnels' carry-on bag inside a black sock

She was charged with carrying a concealed weapon without a permit, but that charge was later dropped.

Algernod Lanier Washington, a world-famous rapper better known by his stage name “Plies,” was also charged with carrying a concealed weapon without a permit.

A police report says he bought a gun from a pawn shop, put it in his backpack and carried it to the airport security checkpoint.

The gun was unloaded and the charge was later dropped after he applied for and received a Florida concealed carry permit.

“Yesterday was a situation I was 1,000% unaware of on my end,” Plies said in a video posted to millions of his fans on social media after his arrest.

He apologized to TSA employees, who he said always treated him with courtesy and respect during his travels.

“I want to personally apologize to y’all from the bottom of my heart also man, if I caused y’all to do any additional paperwork due to my situation,” he said in the video.

Gun owners can avoid arrests and fines

“You find out how the government can take your liberty interests really quickly. Just based on an accident,” said Tampa Defense Attorney Ben Stechshulte, who has defended two clients charged with bringing guns to the airport in recent years.

He says most cases don’t result in convictions, but defendants still have to pay thousands of dollars in fines and legal costs.

“They’re not intending to possess these firearms without a permit. They didn’t even realize they possessed it, most of the time,” Stechshulte said.

TSA Director Skinner says his officers are heading into the holidays preparing for the worst.

“Given what’s happened already this year, we’re gonna see more weapons,” Skinner said.

He says if you have to travel with a gun, you need to make preparations with your airline ahead of time to check it with your luggage.

Otherwise, you could find yourself facing a big fine or even jail time.

These are rules for transporting guns and ammunition on a commercial flight:

Firearms

  • When traveling, comply with the laws concerning possession of firearms as they vary by local, state and international governments.
  • If you are traveling internationally with a firearm in checked baggage, please check the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website for information and requirements prior to travel.
  • Declare each firearm each time you present it for transport as checked baggage. Ask your airline about limitations or fees that may apply.
  • Firearms must be unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container and transported as checked baggage only. As defined by 49 CFR 1540.5 a loaded firearm has a live round of ammunition, or any component thereof, in the chamber or cylinder or in a magazine inserted in the firearm. Only the passenger should retain the key or combination to the lock unless TSA personnel request the key to open the firearm container to ensure compliance with TSA regulations. You may use any brand or type of lock to secure your firearm case, including TSA-recognized locks.
  • Firearm parts, including magazines, clips, bolts and firing pins, are prohibited in carry-on baggage, but may be transported in checked baggage.
  • Replica firearms, including firearm replicas that are toys, may be transported in checked baggage only.
  • Rifle scopes are permitted in carry-on and checked baggage.

Ammunition

  • Ammunition is prohibited in carry-on baggage, but may be transported in checked baggage.
  • Firearm magazines and ammunition clips, whether loaded or empty, must be securely boxed or included within a hard-sided case containing an unloaded firearm. Read the requirements governing the transport of ammunition in checked baggage as defined by 49 CFR 175.10 (a)(8).
  • Small arms ammunition (up to .75 caliber and shotgun shells of any gauge) must be packaged in a fiber (such as cardboard), wood, plastic, or metal box specifically designed to carry ammunition and declared to your airline.
  • Ammunition may be transported in the same hard-sided, locked case as a firearm if it has been packed as described above. You cannot use firearm magazines or clips for packing ammunition unless they completely enclose the ammunition. Firearm magazines and ammunition clips, whether loaded or empty, must be boxed or included within a hard-sided, locked case.
  • Please check with your airline for quantity limits for ammunition.

If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, email us at adam@abcactionnews.com.