THE BLOG

Does The TSA Have a Gun Fixation? (VIDEO)

03/21/2013 07:24 am ET | Updated May 21, 2013
  • Christopher Elliott Author, How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money, and Hassle)

Maybe the TSA hasn't ever caught a single terrorist red-handed, but it's given us something almost as good: guns. Lots of guns.

Guns are a hot topic today, and not just in Washington. The TSA confiscated them in record numbers last year, and most of them were loaded. They make news, even in small amounts.

No one is going to argue that having guns on planes is a good idea, even after the TSA's surprise announcement that some knives would be allowed. But is it fair to connect aviation safety to the confiscation of firearms?

If the objective is to stop airborne terrorism, probably not. The weapon du jour isn't a gun. It's too obvious. Instead, the terrorists apparently prefer boxcutters (9/11) and plastic explosives (Richard Reid and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab).

During the last attempted hijacking, which happened in China in 2012, extremists reportedly used perfectly legal metal canes to try to take over the aircraft. They failed because passengers fought back.

Guns are rarely used to hijack a plane anymore. After a rash of firearm-related incidents in the '60s and '70s, loaded weapons fell out of favor with terrorists. The last time one was used was in 2009, when a lone gunman forced his way through security onto a Canadian aircraft in Jamaica. The standoff ended with no casualties.

There's probably a bad reason why terrorists don't pack guns. Fear of an "explosive" decompression, which was debunked on a popular cable TV show a few years ago. Thanks, Hollywood.

Also, it's just too obvious.

Permanent emergency?

And yet the TSA acts as if it's stopping planes from falling out of the sky by confiscating guns from passengers -- almost all of which were inadvertently packed in a carry-on bag.

Consider, for example, the recent case of Robert Kellerman of Long Pond, Pa., who was arrested by Port Authority Police officers in Newark. His "crime"? Accidentally packing his gun in his carry-on luggage. Was Kellerman going to run the plane into a skyscraper or reroute it to Cuba? No. It appears he didn't even know he'd packed the weapon.

Same thing goes for 52-year-old Christopher Ledford of Kennesaw, Ga., who was arrested at the Atlanta airport for bringing a gun through a TSA checkpoint in early February. At the time, he was the ninth air traveler of the year whose gun was confiscated by agents in Atlanta.

These passengers are guilty of only one thing: being forgetful.

Time to stop looking for guns?

Should TSA stop searching for firearms? Of course not. Even before the agency's existence, firearms weren't allowed on planes, and with good reason.

But let's not lose our sense of perspective. The TSA treats every firearms confiscation as if it's just stopped a 9/11 sequel, as I've repeatedly documented on my consumer advocacy blog.

"26 firearms discovered this week!" it recently proclaimed on its blog. "24 were loaded and seven had rounds chambered. Here are pictures of some of the firearms."

The confiscations are a double-edged sword. With the public's attention fixed on guns, we're often reminded of the many weapons that get through, suggesting our so-called "gold-standard" airport security is a lot more porous than we're willing to admit.

But it's also a distraction from the real problem. If the flying public is led to believe that the TSA is making progress and stopping criminals from boarding a plane, then it can continue to justify its bloated $8-billion-a-year budget.

Truth is, the TSA is looking for a one-in-a-billion terrorist who wants to blow up a plane and the rest of the time, it's supposed to be in the customer-service business, coaching passengers through a hopelessly convoluted and confusing screening process.

The TSA's gun obsession is just that -- a pointless obsession that detracts it from its real mission.

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