By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING – Transportation Safety Administration screeners detected about 70 firearms at airport checkpoints in Michigan last year, most of them at Detroit Metro Airport.
That’s almost double the number from 2015.
Nationally, the number of guns detected in carry-on bags at airport checkpoints rose to 4,432 in 2019, up 5% from the previous year, TSA said. Of them, 87% were loaded.
More flyers and more guns are the two major reasons for the rising number, according to Mark Howell, the TSA acting field manager for Michigan and nine other states, including Ohio and Indiana.
“We’re screening more passengers and there are more guns out there,” Howell said.
TSA statistics provided to Capital News Service show screeners found 47 firearms last year at the Detroit airport, down from 69 in 2018.
Wayne County Airport Police chief Marty Kolakowski attributed last year’s sharp drop in cases from the 2018 peak to media coverage, public service announcements, more warning signs at the airport and better public awareness.
Elsewhere in Michigan last year, TSA found:
- 10 at Grand Rapids’ Gerald R. Ford International Airport, double the 5 in 2018
- 4 at Flint’s Bishop International Airport, twice as many as in 2018
- 3 at Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City, down from 5 in 2018
- 3 at MBS (Midland-Bay-Saginaw) International Airport in Freeland, up from 0 in 2018
- 2 at Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport in Portage, double the number in 2018.
Screeners found no firearms at airports in Lansing and Marquette last year or the previous year.
As for the spike in Grand Rapids, “it’s hard to pin down a specific reason , said Tara Hernandez, the Ford Airport Authority’s marketing and communications director.
Two possible reasons are “significant passenger increases” and a growing number of concealed pistol license (CPL) holders in the state, Hernandez said.
Officials say they’re concerned about the growing number of passengers who try to carry weapons aboard planes. Federal law requires them to be unloaded and locked in a hard-sided case . Passengers must declare them to the airline and check the bag.
TSA Administrator David Pekoske said, “The continued increase in the number of firearms that travelers bring to airport checkpoints is deeply troubling.”
Airports in Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Houston and Phoenix led the country in the number of firearms found last year.
Violators face federal civil penalties from TSA of up to $13,300, based on the type of weapon and whether it’s loaded or not. First-time offenders are usually fined $4,100.
Howell said it’s up to local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors whether to file criminal or civil charges under state and local laws.
Kolakowski, the chief at Detroit Metro, said there’s a Wayne County Airport Police officer posted at each major checkpoint.
“We get called whenever they find a gun or weapon or something suspicious,” and then a second officer generally handles the weapon situation, Kolakowski said.
Cases fall into two broad categories – passengers with a valid concealed pistol license and those without a CPL, he said.
Those with a permit – the vast majority of such cases – are usually charged with a misdemeanor for violating the airport’s firearm exclusionary zone. Those in the second category may face a felony charge.
In both situations, police hold the weapons as evidence until their cases are resolved, Kolakowski said. At that point, guns can be returned if their owners are legally eligible to have them – or destroyed if they’re not.
In Grand Rapids, police confirm whether a firearm is registered, Hernandez said. If it is, the CPL holders may take it back to his or her vehicle or take it home if there’s time before the flight.
Michigan’s most prominent recent violator was House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, who inadvertently carried an unregistered but loaded .380-caliber handgun in his bag at the Pellston Regional Airport in July 2018.
In January 2019, Chatfield paid a $1,960 federal fine and a $250 state civil fine but wasn’t charged criminally.
He apologized and called it “an expensive mistake.”
As in Chatfield’s case, Howell said the most common excuse for trying to carry a firearm through the screening is “oops, I forgot it’s in my bag” or “I forgot to take it out before going to the airport.”
Detroit Metro’s Kolakowski said, “Generally people (with a CPL) have grown accustomed to carrying a weapon. They’re honest people who made a mistake.”
The best excuse he’s heard? “My husband put it in the diaper bag.”