Airport gun ban debate has hole
Checked baggage: Many fliers carry weapons, ammo in locked cases in nonsecure areas of Hartsfield-Jackson.
By Jim Tharpe
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Monday, August 18, 2008
Officials at the world’s busiest airport apparently overstated their case last month when they declared Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International a “gun-free” zone.
Truth is, hunters, competitive shooters and other fliers tote hundreds of guns —- some of them high-powered weapons —- and thousands of rounds of ammunition through nonsecure areas of Hartsfield-Jackson every year.
“The claim it was a gun-free zone was sort of a misnomer,” said airport spokesman Herschel Grangent. “There are people who have guns at the airport.
“What we’re trying to stop is people carrying loaded guns in a concealed manner in the nonsecure areas.”
Federal regulations stipulate that the guns and ammo must be carried in a locked, hard-sided case, and they must be checked as baggage. Each passenger is permitted to carry up to 11 pounds of ammunition. Weapons, which must be unloaded, and ammo must be declared to gate agents.
Neither the Federal Aviation Administration nor the Transportation Security Administration keep statistics on how many guns passengers check at Hartsfield-Jackson, said representatives of both agencies.
However, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, the airport’s biggest carrier, estimates that about 700 or so guns —- rifles, shotguns, pistols —- are brought into the airport every year to be checked as luggage by its passengers.
Some gun-rights advocates argue the fact that people now legally carry guns into the airport undermines the city’s contention that legally carried, concealed weapons will make Hartsfield-Jackson less safe.
“It defuses their argument that there would be a stampede if someone has a gun at the airport,” said John Monroe, an attorney for GeorgiaCarry.org. “People have guns at the airport every day, and there hasn’t been a stampede.”
GeorgiaCarry.org has filed a federal lawsuit against city and airport officials. It urges an end to the airport gun ban that went into effect July 1, after a change in state law. The lawsuit case is still moving through court, but a federal judge recently refused to lift the ban temporarily.
Airport General Manager Ben DeCosta said his focus is on keeping the airport’s 89 million yearly passengers safe. He has threatened to have anyone carrying a gun at Hartsfield-Jackson arrested.
“I’m not going to quibble over words,” DeCosta said. “This is a gun-free airport, which means it is illegal to have loaded, concealed weapons at the airport.”
The outcome of the high-profile court battle could have consequences for all U.S. airports.
Gun-rights advocates argue the new state law allows gun owners who pass background checks and obtain concealed weapons permits to carry guns in nonsecure areas of the airport —- parking lots, MARTA trains, restaurants and terminal areas in front of the security gates.
Both sides agree guns should be banned in the “secure” areas beyond the metal detectors and security gates.
City and airport officials claim the airport falls under the “public gatherings” statute, and they believe guns are still forbidden at the airport, despite the new law.
Longtime hunter Alvin Vaughn, 60, of Conyers said four days after officials declared Hartsfield-Jackson a “gun-free zone,” he walked through the terminal with two high-powered rifles he had retrieved from luggage claim as he returned from a hunting trip to Africa.
Vaughn said he has transported dozens of guns and many pounds of ammo through the nonsecure areas of the airport over nearly two decades.
“I think the gun ban’s foolish,” Vaughn said. “The main part of the airport is just like any other public space in the state. It should not be treated any differently than walking the streets of Atlanta.”
Former federal agent James Cool said he sees a contradiction in allowing people to check guns as luggage, but banning concealed weapons carried by licensed carriers in the same airport areas.
“How is that a gun-free zone?” Cool asked. “How long would it take somebody to take a Glock [a pistol] out of its case and load it right at the ticket counter? If you are a terrorist, that’s how you would do it anyway.
“We’re splitting hairs. The airport is not a gun-free zone.”