As TSA reviews safety, weapons keep piling up at BWI

The armed gunman walked up to a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport and fatally shot a TSA officer and wounded three other people before being shot by responding police.

The events earlier this month have focused renewed attention on the safety of the unarmed TSA officers who screen passengers for flights every day at the nation's airports, including Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. And it has prompted a debate about arming some of the agents.


Through the end of September, the Maryland Transportation Authority Police had confiscated seven firearms at BWI this year. The authority police force, which has armed officers at the airport, handles all gun seizures for TSA there.

A total of 1,343 firearms were seized at airport checkpoints across the country during the same time period, said Lisa Farbstein, a TSA spokeswoman.


The guns are just a tiny percentage of the weapons TSA agents face daily. In a nondescript warehouse off a narrow service road at BWI, dangerous examples of traveler forgetfulness — or brazen disregard for airline safety measures — are carefully cataloged and stacked in boxes each day.

There are knives, switchblades, brass knuckles and replica guns that TSA officials have identified at airport security checkpoints, forgotten in the pockets of old hunting jackets, stashed at the bottom of carry-on bags or clipped snugly and openly on fliers' leather belts.

Such weapons aren't only common, but arrive at airport checkpoints constantly. The TSA takes control of more than 300 pounds of such items at BWI every month.

"Here we are, so many years after 9/11, that we would think people would remember" not to carry such items into airports, Farbstein said.

That they don't, or arrive with the weapons anyway, is "unfortunate," she said.

The death of TSA officer Gerardo Hernandez, the first killed on duty in the agency's history, highlights the ease with which passengers or those intending to do harm can walk up to airport security lines with weapons — and at times meet no immediate armed law enforcement presence.

Shortly after the shooting, TSA Administrator John S. Pistole promised a review of security protocols for TSA officers. He also began meeting with local and state authorities and aviation stakeholders to discuss security at airports across the country.

The American Federation of Government Employees national union, which represents 45,000 TSA agents nationwide, responded by calling for some officers to be armed for the first time since the TSA was created, two months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.


"AFGE wants to make sure we are doing everything possible to secure the screening areas at our nation's airports," said the union's national president, J. David Cox Sr., during a conference call with reporters. "The tragedy at LAX was an unfortunate reminder that our airports aren't as safe and secure as they could be."

All the knives and assorted weapons in the TSA warehouse at BWI were willingly turned over by passengers — who also were given the chance of returning them to their cars, placing them in their checked luggage or mailing them home.

First Sgt. Jonathan Green, a MdTA spokesman, said he could not immediately provide details on the firearms, stun guns and other serious weapons confiscated at BWI. But his department has "an excellent working relationship with the multitude of federal agencies at BWI," he said.

In September, two stun guns were confiscated by MdTA police within a week of each other after TSA officers noticed them in passengers' carry-on bags. One of the passengers also had a pocket knife.

In the same month, TSA officers stopped a man in a strange incident in which two razor blades were discovered embedded in the sole of his tennis shoes — apparently unbeknownst to him.

Ron Moore, a former TSA officer at BWI and former president of the national union, left the agency years ago after publicly criticizing it. Today, he says the question of how best to respond to the violence at LAX, a rare event, is hard to answer.


"How do you expand [security] in a way that makes folks feel more safe?" he asked. "How do you respond to an anomaly?"

One good step would be to empower the TSA to arm some officers, he said. While all TSA officers certainly don't need a gun on their hip, a select core of officers who know the agency and its work — unlike the local police agencies who patrol airports now — would boost security quickly, he said.

"It would be an improvement to have trained officers who are armed, who have the ability to make arrests, who have a background with TSA, who have experience with TSA, and who are part of our briefings," Moore said.

Farbstein said Pistole is considering all options to "make sure all the officers are as safe as possible" moving forward.

"Obviously that's something that is very, very serious, so he's going to be looking at the big picture," she said. "But no decisions have been made at this point."

Items taken at BWI in the past have included a meat cleaver, a sword hidden in a cane, replica guns that look real at a glance, a cattle prod and a double-edged weapon known as a "debrainer."


In the days since the LAX shooting alone, the TSA has taken scores of bats and other potential bludgeoning tools, kitchen knives, pocket knives, wine-bottle openers and police-style retractable batons.

Mike Duckett, who oversees the cataloging and collection of the weapons, previously worked security for the airlines before starting with the TSA in 2002, shortly after its inception.

"Still after this many years," he said, "they will continue to bring these items."