Still showing up at TSA airport security: Guns, knives, bear spray, grenades

Airport security remains a major concern a dozen years after the 911 terrorist attacks. People still try to bring weapons and other dangerous items aboard airliners, and some of them succeed.

Elaine Thompson/AP
In this 2010 photo, TSA officer Robert Howard signals an airline passenger forward at a security check-point at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in SeaTac, Wash.

For years now we’ve all been instructed on airliner security etiquette.

We know not to make smart remarks using the “b” word. Present our boarding pass and government-issued I.D. to no-nonsense uniformed officers of the TSA (Transportation Security Administration). Take off our shoes and pass through body scanners with a chance that our day might include a personal pat-down by a stranger.

And above all, do not bring with you anything on the no-no list, especially anything that could be seen as a potential threat. We all know that the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 911 did it with simple sharp tools.

So do we all follow these simple rules meant to avert another attack? Nooo, we do not.

Here’s some of what the TSA found during one recent week: 42 firearms, 74 credit card knives, inert grenades and a live smoke grenade, eight ounces of bear repellant, knives in the handles of brushes and combs, and 17 stun guns. Of the 42 firearms, 35 were loaded and nine had rounds chambered. 

TSA keeps a jaunty blog reporting such finds and offering tips on how to avoid embarrassment if not prosecution.

“Sure, it’s great to share the things that our officers are finding, but at the same time, each time we find a dangerous item, the line is slowed down and a passenger that likely had no ill intent ends up with a citation or in some cases is even arrested,” reads the most recent blog post. “The passenger can face a penalty as high as $7,500. This is a friendly reminder to please leave these items at home. Just because we find a prohibited item on an individual does not mean they had bad intentions, that's for the law enforcement officer to decide.”

For all of 2013, TSA found 1,813 firearms in carry-on bags, 1,477 of which were loaded. Firearms were intercepted at a total of 205 airports with Atlanta on top of the list for the most firearms intercepted (111).

Some examples:

• A loaded .45 caliber pistol with six rounds and one chambered was discovered strapped to the ankle of a Pittsburgh passenger during a pat-down after he had opted out of AIT (Advanced Imaging Technology).

• While resolving an alarm on checked baggage, officers at Boston Logan discovered a fully disassembled 30-30 rifle concealed within the lining of the bag and taped to the straps. Police responded and ran a check on the serial number of the rifle, revealing that it had been stolen.
 • In what was believed to be an attempt to avoid declaring his firearms, a passenger at Houston wrapped two guns in newspaper and placed them in a box of detergent powder in his checked baggage. 

One only need read the comments on TSA’s blog to get a sense of how much of the public feels about a level of security that is not only severe (in the eyes of many) but decidedly not leak-proof.

“So no mention of the knife and gun missed in separate incidents at Sky Harbor in Phoenix? How about the fact that DHS/TSA is letting illegal immigrants fly without any ID except an easily reproducible court document with no pictures, watermarks, etc.?” writes one.

“Was the TSO who found the bear repellant the same Phoenix TSO who missed the loaded gun and knife?” writes another, also referencing a Fox News report last week.

More substantively, Atlantic magazine’s Jeffrey Goldberg details TSA’s challenges and weaknesses.

“Suspicious that the measures put in place after the attacks of September 11 to prevent further such attacks are almost entirely for show – security theater is the term of art – I have for some time now been testing, in modest ways, their effectiveness,” he writes.

“I’ve … carried, at various times: pocketknives, matches from hotels in Beirut and Peshawar, dust masks, lengths of rope, cigarette lighters, nail clippers, eight-ounce tubes of toothpaste (in my front pocket), bottles of Fiji Water (which is foreign), and, of course, box cutters,” Goldberg reports. He’s also been able to board flights using forged boarding passes. Sometimes he’s told to give up items (like his Leatherman tool), sometimes not.

TSA screens some 1.7 million passengers a day.

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