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Targeted by the TSA

by Barbara (Annie) Renner
Director, Operation Self Defense

May 3, 2003 -- I recently had the pleasure(?) of flying from Cody, WY to Tampa, FL with a neighbor who is a retired law enforcement officer. Since we planned to drive back, we thought it a prudent idea to have a firearm with us on the road. After discussion, we decided that she might raise fewer eyebrows than I when it came to declaring and checking a weapon, so she packed her handgun in her baggage.

When we arrived at the airport, she immediately told the ticket agent that she had an unloaded weapon in her bag. The bag was opened and the unloaded gun was tagged as having been inspected. The suitcase was then transferred to the security personnel for inspection, some of whom we knew personally and all of whom heard her declare the weapon.

Naturally, as the inspection process proceeded, her bag tested positive for gunpowder residue and because she set off the alarm, she had to undergo “the process.” She was required to give an inspector her driver’s license and answer questions such as where she was going and why? All the information was duly recorded on the appropriate government form and she was then free to go and “enjoy her flight.”

A few months prior I had been through the same process after one of my bags raised the red flag for gunpowder residue, although I’m not quite sure why it did. I can only assume that at some point in the recent past, my husband or I had handled the suitcase shortly after handling a weapon or ammo.

In any case, I kidded my friend that she was now in the database of “suspicious” air travelers and big brother would be keeping a close eye on her from now on. I had no idea how close I was to the truth.

We left the ticket counter and headed to the gate (about 20 feet away – it’s a small airport), confidant that all the security folks were satisfied that we were basically harmless, especially since we knew several of the inspectors and were very familiar to the ticket agent. To our surprise, however, both of us were immediately selected for the more intense screening process. We removed our shoes and underwent the “wand treatment” while all our carry-on items were intensely scrutinized. I watched as an inspector went through everything in my carry-on bag before turning his attention to my handbag. He checked inside the bill compartment of my wallet; he inspected the candy bar I had brought as a snack and even smashed my brownie.

I suppose that I should have been reassured by the thoroughness of the security personnel, but I have to admit that I was somewhat perplexed. I had flown several times since 9-11 and had never been tagged as an individual who needed higher scrutiny. Furthermore, the thoroughness of the inspection may have looked acceptable to other passengers who observed the proceedings, but I knew it wasn’t. When we were finally off the ground and on our way, I picked up my handbag and invited my companion to take a look at what the “intense” screening had missed.

I often carry a concealed weapon (legally, of course) and do so in a handbag with a Velcro pocket in which the weapon resides. The pocket is located in a seam on the side of the bag and is not readily noticeable. Of course, there was no weapon in the bag since I was flying, but I did have a pair of reading glasses in the pocket. The inspector completely missed it. 

We chuckled and joked a bit about how well our government was taking care of the flying public and settled in for the first leg of the flight, truly confidant that the government authorities were now certain that we were harmless.

When we arrived in Salt Lake City my friend was ahead of me in line as we were boarding and she was again selected for more thorough screening. As she walked off she shrugged her shoulders and said, “I’ll catch up with you later.” I laughed and replied, “Hang on, I’ll be right there.” Sure enough, I was ordered to follow her.

Again the shoes came off and the wand passed over us, beeping at watches, jean rivets and such. Again, everything in our carry-on items was examined carefully and you guessed it – again the screener missed that “secret” compartment. Neither of us commented to the screeners as we went through the process for the second time in less than three hours, although I’m sure my frustration was readily visible. We did cast a brief smile at one another, knowing the whole process was a joke, but concentrated on the man searching my purse to see if he would find that pocket.

Once on board we wondered why we seemed to have been targeted by the system. The “randomness” of the more intense screening process now seemed as implausible as we had always thought it to be. It was pretty clear that we weren’t chosen by random, but because we fit some profile that deemed us suspicious.

She speculated that it was because she had declared a weapon, although a true terrorist would most likely not do such a thing – he’d try to hide it. Perhaps they thought the declared weapon was a decoy and she had other means of attack in her possession. She hypothesized that I was subjected to the same treatment because I was traveling with her.

I suggested that we were both now on the list of “suspicious” persons after setting off their sensors and would have to put up with this from now on whenever we flew. Whatever their reason, we knew that the TSA had us, two innocent women, tagged as some possible threat and flying would now be a major headache.

Our next stop was Dallas and this time only one of us was plucked out of line – but there’s an interesting twist. Before boarding we had somehow gotten our boarding passes mixed up. I had hers and she had mine. I was first to reach the ticket agent and he scanned the boarding pass and looked at my picture identification. He looked somewhat confused and I immediately realized what had happened. In short order we had the situation corrected and he then began to smile. He told me that I could thank my friend for having to endure extra screening. Her name had come up for the screening, but they sent me!

My friend boarded the plane and I went through the process for third time that day, with a lot of grumbling. It seemed to me that if the government “protectors” were looking at her as a threat, it would be somewhat useless to inspect me in her place. What if she really were a terrorist? And if one or both of us were going to engage in some terrorist act on board an aircraft, we surely would have done it by now and not risk yet another “thorough” check of our belongings. The situation had reached the point of absurdity as far as I was concerned.

And speaking of that “thorough” inspection (as you’ve probably already guessed) the secret compartment slipped through undetected again.

Now before someone accuses me of trying to tell terrorists how to sneak things onto a plane, let me assure you that that is not my intention. While the airport screening process has been successful in some aspects, the program isn’t perfect. My intent is to point out a lapse in their security precautions with the hope they will address the problem and correct it.

My ultimate aim, however, is to point out to passengers that they simply cannot rely on the government to protect them. While these screening programs may make you “feel” safer, there are just too many loopholes. And, based on my recent experiences, I have to question whether or not their attention is always focused in the right direction. Did they really think my friend and I were of such a potential threat that we needed to be harassed at every stop, simply because one of us had declared a perfectly legal, unloaded weapon?

Whatever the reason, the experience confirmed my suspicions that the entire security process is more show than substance, designed to make us feel safer in a way that won’t be too detrimental to the ailing airline companies. (After all, how many Americans have expressed the opinion that they are willing to tolerate these invasive searches if it enhances security.)

Thankfully, government officials have taken a small step in the right direction by allowing pilots to carry weapons, although there is still a need for a lot of improvement in the program. At present the training standards and requirements are set at an astronomical level and restrictions on the actual carry and storage of the weapon make the program much, much less effective that it could or should be. The program, as it is now, is much like the screening process – more show than substance. Still, even with a miniscule number of pilots approved thus far, progress has been made and with enough pressure from the public, perhaps we can push this program to the level it should be, for it sure beats what we have now. 

Of course, when it comes to safety in the air, the ideal solution is to allow honest, law-abiding citizens, who have undergone the appropriate background checks and training, to carry weapons on aircraft. The result would be the safest air transportation system in the world. When criminals, or in this case, terrorists, know that their potential victims have the capacity and tools to defend themselves, the thugs turn their attention elsewhere. But, of course, allowing the common folk, no matter how qualified or experienced, to carry on an aircraft is not likely to happen in my lifetime.

So, in the meantime, unless there is a serious emergency like a death in the family, my travel will be conducted on the nation’s highways.

And my advice to gun owners is that if you need to take a weapon with you, don’t fly!

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War is an ugly thing but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feelings which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. — John Stuart Mills

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