Felon’s Accidental Gun Discharge Leads to Panic at Atlanta Airport
Thanksgiving is upon us, and after the dismal showing in 2020, we are all looking forward to a well-earned do-over. If Saturday’s kickoff to Thanksgiving at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is any indication, however, things may be getting off to a rough start. When the gun of a passenger who was moving through security went off – in what has officially been deemed an accident – chaos naturally ensued. Flight disruptions and stampeding passengers were not far behind, according to The New York Times.
Officials have identified the firing as an accidental discharge, but that did not stop holiday travelers from reasonably reacting in terror – many fleeing and taking cover in response to what they assumed was a gunman in the terminal. After two hours of investigating the matter, the airport gave the all-clear, and normal operations were resumed. In the interim, three people suffered injuries (that were not life-threatening).
Travel Approaching Pre-Pandemic Levels
The accidental gunshot could not have happened at a less opportune time. After the pandemic brought air travel to a nearly screeching halt in 2020, thanksgiving travel this year – the busiest season of the year – is expected to approach pre-pandemic peak levels. Even short delays on the ground can reverberate into widespread delays throughout the nation – related to flight connections, car rentals, hotel reservations, and more – making the incident that much more profound. Although flights were grounded in response to this incident for only 35 minutes, it upset the overall balance of flights for the rest of the day and into the next.
The facts related to the Atlanta airport incident – as they are understood – include the following:
The person who discharged the firearm was a 42-year-old male passenger.
The man is a felon (which precludes legal gun possession), and there is a current warrant out for his arrest.
The man’s bag was flagged at the main airport checkpoint for having something in it that was deemed a prohibited item.
When the TSA officer working the checkpoint opened the bag to check through it, the man in question lunged for the gun inside, and as he grabbed it, it discharged.
The man fled the scene by running out of a nearby airport exit.
While airport leadership quickly determined that the incident was not an active shooter event, they initiated a ground stop for all aircraft in an abundance of caution – while the Atlanta Police Department delved into further investigations.
A 2014 Law
In 2014, The State of Georgia passed a concealed weapons law that allows concealed guns and other weapons in commercial airports when they are outside the screening checkpoint and in those areas that are normally open to unscreened passengers or visitors at the airport. In Atlanta this year – to date – TSA officers have recovered over 450 firearms in checkpoints throughout the airport. The incident in question highlights the critical importance of thoroughly checking one’s personal belongings for dangerous and prohibited items prior to embarking for the airport. TSA points out that all the following apply to firearms (and especially loaded firearms):
They pose an unnecessary risk at airport checkpoints.
They have no safe place in the passenger cabin of an aircraft.
They amount to very costly and consequential misconduct on the part of the passengers who attempt to bring them on board.
Any passenger who attempts to bring a firearm through security can face a federal civil penalty.
Although the official effects of the gun incident were fairly minimal, social media tells a different story. Passengers on the ground in Atlanta that day shared all the following:
Many passengers had to exit their departing flights and needed to be rescreened for security.
Many of the exiting passengers were required to remain on the tarmac (after exiting their planes) until further instructions were forthcoming.
In the confusion, the airport took on an overall sense of chaos – such as when stray suitcases were left behind as one area of the airport spontaneously emptied.
Outside the airport, passengers began gathering in the departure area – slowing down drop-offs – while they waited for answers about what was happening.
Those closest to the event – who had no way of knowing what was going on in the moment – experienced the most pandemonium and fright, and many of them ran for exits or whatever cover was available after hearing the three shots ring out.
The Suspect in Question
At the time of its writing, an article in The Guardian shared that the suspect had been identified and was being sought on charges that include:
Carrying a concealed weapon in a commercial airport
Possession of a firearm by a convicted felon
Discharging a firearm
A Surge in Firearm Seizures
Federal officials have reported a surge in firearm seizures in the Atlanta airport specifically and across the nation generally. By October 3 of 2021, TSA had stopped nearly 4,500 passengers from carrying firearms through security, which surpassed the record previously set for the entire year in 2019. This surge in firearm seizures is despite the fact that the pandemic-related dip in passengers segued into 2021. No explanation for this uptick in seizures has been offered.
Firearm Seizures in Texas Airports
According to ReformAustin, gun seizures in airports across the nation averaged about 12.1 per day in 2019, which amounted to a 5 percent increase over the total number of firearm detections in 2018. Further, firearm seizures were on the rise in airports throughout Texas in 2020 – despite the considerable pandemic-related drop in air travel overall. Consider all the following (that happened in 2020):
In early August, TSA officers located loaded handguns in passengers’ carry-on bags at El Paso International Airport.
A week later, three loaded guns were confiscated by TSA from carry-on cases at Dallas Love Field.
Two days after that, a man was arrested inside Austin’s Bergstrom International Airport for having a loaded gun on him.
In the course of about a week, there were seven separate incidents in Texas, and they all involved guns that were loaded. Gun and ammunition sales are reported to have been through the roof in Texas throughout the pandemic, and some air travelers seem to have gotten it into their heads that keeping their guns on them when they fly is a good idea. The rate that TSA officers detected guns in the carry-ons rolling through security was three times higher in July of 2020 than it was in 2019. This translates to 15.3 guns per million people screened at airport security in 2020 as compared to 5.1 guns per million people screened in 2019, which marks a considerable jump.
A TSA Administrator Weighs In
A TSA administrator shares that airport screeners are already working at the top of their game to help ensure that passengers and airport employees alike are kept safe (in the face of heightened concerns brought on by the pandemic). The fact that passengers are introducing new risks into the mix – in the form of loaded firearms – is disheartening (and dangerous). The TSA official reported that 80 percent of the guns it has confiscated at airport checkpoints are loaded, which amounts to a recipe for disaster. He also shared a reminder for air passengers throughout the nation: Travelers need to know that if they bring a gun to the security checkpoint, regardless of whether it is in a handbag, knapsack, roller-bag or strapped to their belt, it will be an inconvenient and expensive mistake on their part. The federal civil penalty for carrying an unloaded firearm begins at $2,050, and for a loaded firearm, it begins at $4,100 (depending upon the circumstances involved). Additionally, those in violation of rules related to traveling with firearms face having their trusted traveler status and expedited screening benefits temporarily revoked (the duration of the revocation hinges on the seriousness of the offense in question and on whether the individual has any prior history of violations).
Traveling with a Gun in a Checked Bag
Airline passengers are allowed to travel with firearms in checked luggage, but strict rules apply, including:
The gun must be declared upon checking in.
The gun must be properly packaged, which includes being unloaded and packed in a hard-sided case that is securely locked.
The gun must be packed separately from any ammunition.
Staying Safe out There
As we prepare for the holiday season ahead – kicked off by Thanksgiving – it is time to think about how to stay safe out there in relation to air travel (including leaving all guns and weapons out of your carry-on luggage).
Get Your Booster
Keep your vaccinations up to date, and if a booster is available to you (and appropriate), it is a good idea to get the matter taken care of before you fly. Since vaccines for children who are over the age of 5 are now available, getting that first vaccine in before taking to the air is well advised. It is important to remember, however, that if your children are not fully vaccinated, you should take all the same precautions as if they are not vaccinated at all. Finally, getting those annual flu shots remains as important as it ever was.
If possible, traveling in the off-peak hours and on off-peak days can improve your chances of successfully social distancing (and it can help make your travels more enjoyable overall). If you have children who are under the age of two – and therefore unable to wear a mask – this approach can be especially helpful.
Wear a Clean, High-Quality Mask
Air travel requires that everyone wears a mask, and donning a clean, high-quality mask is recommended. N95, KN95, and KF94 masks all hit the marks you are looking for in a protective face mask, and it is important to ensure that the masks you and your family wear fit your faces well. If your mask does not fit correctly, not only is it less effective, but it is also more likely to be uncomfortable (thus making it more difficult to keep on throughout hours of arduous air travel).
Allow Yourself the Time You Need
Now is not the time to duck into the airport with minutes to spare – expecting to make your flight. Building in the time you need to tackle security and to attend to the matters at hand helps to ensure that you will make it to your final destination in a timely fashion and that you will be able to stay safe in the process.
Prepare for Security
You know the drill – wear shoes that you can pop off, skip the jewelry and heavy watches, put your jacket in your carry-on, have your little bag of toiletries at the ready, and be prepared to slip your laptop into the bin. It has been a while since many of us have traveled by air. However, honing up on the requirements can help you breeze through (to the best of your ability, given everything that is going on).
Eat ahead of Time
If you are at greater risk in relation to COVID-19, it pays to take extra precautions. While everyone in the airport and on your plane is required to wear a mask nearly all the time, the exception is when people are eating or drinking. If you can eat prior to boarding, it helps to eliminate the risk associated with removing your own mask while you are in flight.
Reach out to an Experienced Killeen Criminal Defense Lawyer for the Legal Guidance You Need
If you are facing a gun charge, Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Killeen, Texas, is a savvy criminal defense lawyer who understands the gravity of your situation and is standing by to help. Our dedicated legal team has the experience, legal insight, and resources you are looking for, so please do not wait to reach out and contact us online or call us at 254-501-4040 for more information today.