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OPINION | MASTERSON ONLINE: Year of my gun

by Mike Masterson | February 7, 2021 at 8:38 a.m.

Each year the federal government releases the number of guns found at checkpoints on airline passengers or their carry-on luggage. Last month that report again made headlines.

In 2020 the number of confiscations reached 3,257, which amounted to roughly 10 for every 1 million passengers. At Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, TSA agents discovered 220 weapons before passengers boarded. And at Sky Harbor in Phoenix, they located 124.

I pay close attention to this annual statistic because I'm proof of how easily this sort of thing can happen.

It's been nearly two decades since I initially wrote about my embarrassing experience while living and working in Phoenix. Today it seemed timely to again share that nightmare as a caution to those fliers as absent-minded as I was years ago.

I also felt empathetic after reading of a woman who tried to board an airplane with a loaded .357 revolver. She said she'd mistakenly placed the handgun in her luggage. Believe me when I say how quickly that scenario can become a reality.

In 1988 I was leading the investigative team at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix. My predecessor, Don Bolles, had been murdered in a car bombing 12 years earlier.

Bolles' slaying occurred during his investigation of land fraud in a state where that was common and people could legally carry guns in plain sight. Anonymous threats against reporters in Phoenix were not that rare and our team had chosen to aggressively pick up Bolles' investigation where he'd left off.

I kept a loaded .357 revolver beneath the bedroom mattress for self-defense. Movers accidentally exposed the gun one day as I was changing residences. I hurriedly looked for the nearest convenient place to tuck it safely out of sight.

Since my hanging bag was the only thing left unpacked in the bedroom, I unzipped a compartment and casually dropped it inside. I made a mental note to be sure and replace it after the bed was reconstructed in my new home later that day.

Fast-forward three weeks. I'm feeling good, standing in the carry-on X-ray line at Sky Harbor bound for a reporting conference in Atlanta. I smiled at the attendant as she scanned my hanging bag. Suddenly her cheerful face dissolved into a frown.

"Sir, can you please tell me what you are carrying in your luggage?" Her stare became icy. Trying to be witty, I responded: "Oh, let's see now, toothpaste, underwear, a refrigerator, my birth control pills." Not a hint of her earlier smile. "Sir, do you perhaps have a toy gun in there?"

"A toy gun?" I responded incredulously. That's when the panic struck my gut like the bottom dropping out of an elevator in the Empire State Building. My body actually went cold. Everything shrunk, shifting into slow motion. A wave of fear-inspired nausea rolled through my stomach.

Oh my God, I forgot to take that gun out of my bag when I moved. And it's way too late now! My thoughts raced.

I tried explaining what happened. But every syllable sounded like yada-yada excuses echoing through Carlsbad Caverns. The only relevant facts at that moment: There was a loaded gun in my travel bag because I clearly had contracted a case of dementia idiotitis.

After several moments of defensive blather, I asked the woman to summon the airport police, which she did. Two officers soon arrived. One peered inside before gingerly removing the pistol with a pencil. The waiting passengers collectively gasped. "This can't be happening to me. It's a bad dream," I kept thinking.

Those traumatic minutes remain etched in my psyche after 33 years. How could I have been so stupid? The officers escorted me to their airport basement office, where I explained the details and called the newspaper to share what had happened. The editor telephoned the U.S. attorney to relay my explanation and mea culpa.

The officers were understanding in explaining how fortunate I was to be in Arizona, where there was no state law against boarding an aircraft with a loaded weapon.

Their comments offered a whiff of cheer on that gloomy day. But I didn't realize what a favor they'd bestowed until arriving in Atlanta and asking a police officer what would have happened had the gun gone undiscovered until I was departing that airport. "We have a real strict state law about trying to board an airplane with a gun here in Georgia. It brings an automatic year in jail," he said.

When Phoenix police confiscated my revolver, they forwarded it to the FBI, where it vanished for three months while undoubtedly being run through every unsolved homicide in the Western Hemisphere. That was fine. I'd never even aimed it toward another person. The last thing I wanted during those months of waiting was to look at the thing again, as if the inanimate weapon was at fault for creating my mess.

Then one morning I was summoned to the Phoenix FBI office, where a stern agent graced me with a deserved 20-minute lecture on the legal storage of guns while traveling. Then he handed me a brown sack containing the revolver, and I left a humbled and wiser man.

--–––––v–––––--

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

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