Shawn Baldwin  /  AP file
These potential weapons were confiscated at JFK airport checkpoints a month after 9/11.  The TSA is now considering allowing some previously banned items back on airplanes.
By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 8/18/2005 2:19:34 PM ET 2005-08-18T18:19:34

The government is grabbing firearms from U.S. airline travelers at a record pace, according to information obtained by MSNBC.com. 

The record haul of guns comes at time when the Transportation Security Administration is considering a proposal to allow some previously banned items, including small knives and razor blades, back onto commercial flights.

In the previous 12 months airline travelers have surrendered 735 firearms, slightly more than 61 per month, at airport security checkpoints, according to information supplied by the TSA.  The previous high was 637 firearms surrendered at airport checkpoints in 2003. 

Confiscation of firearms, however, pale in comparison to other potential weapons.  Every day for the past three years some 14,000 potential weapons were caught trying to pass through airport checkpoints, according to a study of TSA data done by the Deseret Morning News.  That study also showed that small hub airports (those that serve between 355,000 and 1.7 million passengers a year) catch far more weapons (12.3) on average, per 1,000 passengers, than the nation’s major airports (6.4 per 1,000 passengers).  More curious: the nation’s smallest non-hub airports, those serving fewer than 355,000 passengers per year, snagged the most potential weapons (15.1 per thousand passengers), according to the Deseret Morning News study.

Potential weapons are surrendered by passengers at airports because the TSA has no authority to actually take items from passengers, said Carrie Harmon, a TSA spokesperson.  Agency screeners can however, stop someone from boarding a plane if they don’t hand it over on request.  In addition, federal, state or local law enforcement officers are available to the TSA should more dangerous weapons, like firearms or explosives be found, Harmon said.

The TSA can’t explain why more weapons are being found per 1,000 passengers at smaller airports.  Harmon denied that training might play a factor.  “All screeners are trained to the same standards, to look for items within a specified amount of time,” she said. 

Nor will the TSA speculate as to why passengers continue to try and bring prohibited items through security checkpoints. 

“TSA has not done any analysis of passenger traveler habits or why passengers in one region or at one airport might bring different kinds of items or might bring more of one item than another,” Harmon said.  “But I can tell you that security is uniform across airports.”

Release the scissors
Later this month Edmund Hawley, the new head of the TSA, will examine a wide range of proposals aimed at improving the performance of passenger and baggage screening at U.S. airports.  Among those proposals are recommendations for revising the list of items currently banned from airline travel. 

TSA staffers proposed allowing smaller knives, ice picks, scissors and bows and arrows back onto flights, according to the Washington Post, which first wrote about the proposals. The easing of the security restrictions for those types of potential weapons was made because TSA evaluators deemed them to be of low risk.

News of the TSA proposal and the continued increase in items caught passing through airport security drew congressional concern Monday.

“I’m glad that TSA is reviewing its screening practices, which several Democratic committee members and I have called for in the past, because after all there is a world of difference between a firearm and cuticle scissors,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security.  “But, I do hope TSA will move forward with caution since the risk that a terrorist would try to overtake a plane has not gone away,” Thompson said.  “We’ll also be watching with great interest to be sure that these changes don’t mean the pendulum swings so far that travelers are made less safe or indiscriminately profiled.”

One security expert brushed aside both the TSA’s proposed revisions and the news of increased weapons grabbed at security check points.

“This is not a relaxation in security, you can’t relax what you don’t have,” said Mike Boyd, an aviation security expert and head of the Colorado-based Boyd Group.  “It’s a change in the screening process,” Boyd said of the potential change in the TSA’s banned items list.

Furthermore, Boyd isn’t surprised or concerned at the record number of firearms and other potential weapons found on airline passengers.  “Not one of them has been confiscated from a terrorist,” Boyd said.  “Not one of them was confiscated from anybody who was going to do damage to an airplane.”

Noting that you can make a weapon by shaving the edge of a credit card to “slit somebody’s throat,” Boyd said he didn’t have any problem with allowing knives or other such objects on board a plane.  “The real issue is what can get on the airplanes from other sources,” he said.  Terrorists are going to have others get their weapons on board, Boyd said.  “They’ll have their buddy cleaning the plane do it for them,” he said.  “Remember a terrorist cell is just that, it’s a well-planned group of people.”

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