New York — Knowingly or not, many airline passengers are violating federal law by checking baggage containing loaded firearms. And many of the nation's airlines appear to be making it easy to get that loaded pistol or rifle into their airliners' cargo bays.
Since September, there have been three incidents at major US airports where loaded firearms in baggage discharged while the bags were being handled by airline employees. Fortunately, there were no injuries.
In a more extreme example, Mark Chapman, accused of shooting former Beatle John Lennon, is said to have carried his weapon undetected in his luggage during the flight from Hawaii to NEw York. A more rigorous inspection of checked baggage might have turned up the handgun, and, if found loaded, it might have been confiscated.
Getting a handle on the size of the problem is difficult, say industry and government officials. Obviously, if a weapon is packed in luggage and not declared or if random baggage inspections fail to turn up a firearm, airline security personnel don't know it is there, let alone whether it is loaded.
Richard Noble, the Federal AViation Administration's chief of Ground Security Operations says that there were 72 alleged violations from Jan. 1 through the end of September; 15 people paid civil fines.
But Quent David, a spokesman for the 10,000-member, Chicago-based Air Line Employees Association (ALEA), asserts that loaded firearms discovered by officials are "only the tip of the iceberg." Airline officials admit they do not check every bag for firearms or explosives, although they do make spot checks using classified procedures.
In April 1978, after a mishap in Denver that killed a baggage clerk for Frontier Airlines, the FAA made it illegal to place a loaded firearm in checked baggage.The regulation allows passengers to put unloaded weapons in checked baggage, provided they are "declared" to be unloaded and locked in a bag. Offenders face fines of up to a $1,000. It also madates that warnings signs be posted at every position at airlines baggage check-in counters.
Subsequently, Frontier, along with the ALEA and US Sen. Gary Hart (D) of Colorado, sought federal legislation to prohibit carrying loaded guns in checked baggage. Last February President Carter signed the measure, which provides up to a $5,000 fine and five-year prison sentences for offenders.
But efforts to prevent loaded firearms from finding their way into the holds of airliners appear to be sporadic, at best.
In complying with a request for a spot check, Delta Airlines spokesman Richard Jones found that while Delta counters at Atlanta airport had the required compliment of signs, its baggage check-in counters at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago and La Guardia in New York City did not. Immediately after his survey, he issued a bulletin to all Delta ground security personnel that the signs muist be posted.
Recent surveys by the ALEA indicate that out of 18 check- in counters visited at O'Hare, only five had signs; at San Francisco International Airport, 24 counters were surveyed and 14 had signs; at Memphis Airport only four of 11 counters had them; at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, only one of 13 baggage check-in counters had the signs.
Tha FAA's Noble says this dirth of signs is not the result of resistance to the gun deterrent program at the top corporate level of the airline industry. Industry sources tend to blame either the ticket counter clerks, who are directly responsible for being sure signs are in place, or some passengers, who may be "walking away with signs."
But, says the ALEA's David, "The worst offenders are the airlines. They don't want to get anyone mad by forcing them to unload their guns."
Frontier, United Airlines, and several others say they have gone beyond federal requirements. Frontier has larger signs than required; United has the warning on its ticket "wallets" as well as on signs at its beggage check-in positions. Other airlines have followed suit.
The FAA makes only "sporadic inspections" for compliance with its regulation, Mr. Noble says. In some major airports, inspections are only "once or twice a month." One problem, he says, is manpower. There are more than 400 airports in the US. The FAA has only 175 security inspectors who must inspecting all facets of airport security operations.
And despite the civil and criminal penalties attached to carrying a loaded firearm in checked baggage, the ALEA claims that with some exceptions, the record shows a general relluctance by federal agencies to enforce the law.
Noble says none of the 72 violators caught to date was prosecuted by US attorneys under the federal law. And of the 15 fines levied since the first of the year, many were in the $300- $400 range, he added.
In the face of heightened concern over loaded weapons in baggage, Con Hitchcock, a spokesman for the Airline Consumers Action Program in Washington, D. C., an airline watchdog group affiliated with Ralph Nader, recommends that serious study be given to the possibility of searching or scanning electronically every checked bag.
The airlines, in almost a uniform chorus, say this would be both too costly and inconvenient for passengers. Yet they said this about efforts in the early 1970s for complete inspection of carry-on baggage, and the success of this gives some in the industry a reason to hope for increased protection.