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TSA inspections don't work for armed nation

Deseret News archives

A few months ago I wondered whether TSA agents looking through grandma's diapers were capable of inspecting folks intelligently at the airport. Now I'm beginning to wonder whether much intelligent life exists among the people being inspected.

Halloween may not come until Monday, but every day is trick-or-treat time for the TSA.

On Tuesday, agents in Salt Lake City noticed a loaded .45-caliber handgun inside a carry-on bag belonging to a man who was hoping to board a flight to Detroit. The man apparently was not a terrorist, because authorities decided not to press any federal charges.

But here's the scary part: This was the fifth time in October agents discovered a loaded firearm at a security checkpoint in Salt Lake City.

And that was considered barely newsworthy. A TSA spokeswoman told the Deseret News 22 loaded firearms were discovered at airports nationwide last week alone. During the first 10 months of this year, agents discovered more than 800 firearms in carry-on bags.

Let me see if I can reconstruct the thought process here. You're loading up a bag for your flight. Hotel reservation information — check. Laptop computer — check. E-book reader or mindless novel — check. Extra toothbrush in case you get stranded somewhere overnight — check. Fully loaded snub nose "baby" Glock pistol — check.

Say what?

Lest you think every American has gotten the message that such a thing might cause a delay in your traveling experience, a snub nosed "baby" Glock is exactly what Iranian-American businessman Farid Seif packed into an otherwise empty computer bag awhile back when he flew out of Houston. For him, this wasn't a conscious decision. It was habit. He generally carries the weapon with him, which made packing it about as routine as how I might accidentally stuff a loaded water bottle into my carry-on (which has happened more than once).

In Seif's case, he didn't realize what he had done until three hours later when he arrived at his destination and unpacked. TSA agents had X-rayed the bag and missed the gun.

Apparently, this happens a lot, too. Federal agencies conduct random stealth tests to see what they can get past the inspectors, and while the results of these are classified, media leaks in previous years show they aren't reassuring.

An ABC News report last year said such a test in Newark in 2006 failed to detect concealed bombs and guns 20 out of 22 times. A 2007 audit in Los Angeles found inspectors missed such items 50 out of 70 times. Apparently, staring at fuzzy X-ray images of hairbrushes, cameras and phone chargers all day can be mind-numbing. Who knew?

There are some lessons to learn from all of this. One is that if agents found 800 firearms so far this year, they probably missed a lot more. Don't make the guy next to you angry.

The other is that a lot of Americans are armed to the teeth.

Inspectors at non-airport sites apparently can vouch for this. The New York Daily News reported recently that officers at a checkpoint for boats headed to the Statue of Liberty found, during the first nine months of this year, 28 weapons classified as illegal —brass knuckles, collapsible batons, blackjacks — as well as 5,300 knives and more than 5,000 other "miscellaneous weapons."

This, in and of itself, is not a huge concern. Being armed is part of the American culture, apparently, and law-abiding people who carry a weapon pose little risk to anyone.

It's just that when you're boarding a flight you can't be so sure who is law-abiding and who might have other ideas. And that brings me to the final lesson.

We have to find a better way to screen for potential problems at airports. The current system apparently is mind-numbing not only for TSA agents but for travelers, as well, which is why so many of them forget to pack their heat into their checked luggage.

Some have suggested using non-threatening, bomb-sniffing dogs to wander near people waiting for metal detectors. It may be worth a try. The current system costs a lot of money and leaves much to be desired.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, www.jayevensen.com.