TSA often seizes weapons at BWI

Among the knives, real and toy pistols, and other dangerous weapons seized at BWI Marshall Airport, this one stood out: A curving 7-inch arc of jagged teeth with a brass knuckle-style grip.

A blogger for the Transportation Security Administration coined the nickname "debrainer" as he enshrined the nasty-looking utensil in the TSA's informal hall of fame.

That's the weirdest thing officers said they have confiscated in recent months from carry-on baggage at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, used by more than 22.2 million passengers last year.

There's also a cattle prod, a meat cleaver and a tube of lipstick that twists open to reveal a tiny dagger. For variety, there's a lighter shapeed like a hand grenade, a thin blade nestled inside a phony credit card and other weapons any suburban ninja would be proud to own.

To demonstrate the need for such stringent security, TSA employees recently pulled out four large cardboard boxes filled with contraband confiscated in "just in the last several months" and spread them out in an airport conference room. Some of the items were owned by people who said they forgot to remove them while packing. But the majority of the stuff was what the TSA calls "artfully concealed."

Amid the constant tug of war between security and convenience, the TSA fights an ongoing public relations battle to explain why fliers must submit to screening, occasional searches and remove their shoes.

"It's clear from all of this that there's a need for the kind of checkpoint we provide," said TSA spokesman Kawika Riley. "I understand how people can get upset and ask, 'Why do you have to look at my book?' or 'Why do you have to open my lipstick?' We need to be sure it's a book. We need to be sure it's a lipstick."

In a rare concession, the TSA last month announced a test project at four airports allowing boarding passengers aged 75 and older to keep their shoes and light jackets on at security checkpoints. Last September, the agency revised screening for children 12 and under, allowing them to keep their shoes on and requiring a parent to be present in the rare case when a decision is made to pat down a child.

TSA screened about 46 million passengers and 37 million checked bags nationwide in February. They found 101 guns.

At BWI, officers screen an average of 61,347 passengers and tens of thousands of bags daily. A running tally of confiscated guns is not kept, but this year's highlights have been noted in the TSA's blog:

On Feb. 3, Edwin F. Hale Sr., the chairman and CEO of First Mariner Bancorp, was found carrying a loaded handgun in his briefcase. On Feb. 29, an officer found a .38-caliber handgun in the bag of a 70-year-old Glen Burnie woman. On March 5, they found a loaded 9-mm handgun in a bag. On April 3, officers confiscated a loaded .32-caliber handgun — a round in the chamber — from a passenger in the screening area.

Screeners found a West Side Story's worth of switchblades — 13 — in carry-ons last year.

"Sometimes after reading the incident reports, it's as though they're having a gun and knife convention at the airport," wrote TSA chronicler Bob Burns a.k.a. "Blogger Bob."

It's not just Baltimore and it's not limited to guns and knives.

A diver brought the bomb squad running in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in February when an ancient cannonball from a 1700s shipwreck loomed in the x ray screen of a TSA officer. Less than two weeks later, two cannonballs were discovered at an airport in Hawaii.

Burns has reported a chain saw in Elmira, pepper spray in Boston and land mines in Salt Lake City on the TSA blog at Almost every week he posts new discoveries.

On its website, TSA has a "Can I Bring My..." search engine that helps travelers figure out what's not allowed at airports. It also has developed a mobile app that includes the search engine feature and can alert users to security line waiting times.

Absent complicating factors, such as outstanding warrants or possession of drugs, 90 percent of those caught are arrested, criminally charged with interfering with law enforcement procedures and released pending a district court appearance. The maximum penalty is a $500 fine and 90 days in jail, Alton said.

Hale was fined $342.50 and given a year's probation. He was allowed to keep his gun permit and his record will be expunged after a year if he stays out of trouble.

All of that could be avoided if the armed passenger shipped the item or placed it in his or her checked luggage, he said.

Weapons are held as evidence until trial — the current status of the cattle prod and the debrainer, in reality a modified version of an emergency tool used to break a car window. Then, they are destroyed.

"Nothing surprises me anymore," said Capt. Joseph Alton Jr., of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, which guards the airport. "But you do wonder, who would fly with a cattle prod?"