If you accidentally forget to remove your firearm from your carry-on bag before heading to the airport, you can be subject to civil fines that could add up to thousands of dollars. In western Pennsylvania, however, there could soon be an additional punishment imposed courtesy of the local U.S. Attorney and county sheriffs: the loss of your concealed carry license.
About 6,500 guns were discovered by TSA agents at airports across the country last year, though only 26 of them were caught at Pittsburgh International Airport. There’s been a slight increase this year, with 32 firearms recovered by Pittsburgh TSA agents, but the plan to go after concealed carry licenses as punishment has been in the works for quite some time.
For the second time in two years, authorities said they will seek to revoke permits to carry a firearm.
“It is simple: Responsible gun owners have an obligation to ensure that their carry- on luggage does not contain a firearm,” said Eric G. Olshan, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania.
The move renews a commitment the local U.S. Attorney’s office made in October 2021 but that never materialized.
County sheriffs, the authority charged with issuing concealed-carry permits in Pennsylvania, said they were never asked to review permits for anyone caught with a gun at an airport checkpoint.
Either because of turnover in the local U.S. Attorney’s office or the complexities of coordinating with federal, state and county officials, no system for tracking and reporting gun owners caught at checkpoints with firearms was implemented.
Officials say that’s about to change.
While Olshan believes that those concealed carry holders who forget about any guns or ammunition they might have stowed in their carry-on should lose their right to carry, he’s not using federal law to go after those gun owners. Instead, he’s relying on the cooperation of Pennsylvania sheriffs.
A spokeswoman for Olshan said their office will notify sheriffs when someone is caught with a gun at an airport checkpoint in the Western District, which covers 25 counties.
John Zechman, president of the Pennsylvania Sheriffs’ Association, said he supported the move and added that the crackdown would be a statewide effort.
“Firearms at security checkpoints pose a serious security risk to the public and to TSA officers,” he said. “As a result of the collaboration between the Pennsylvania Sheriffs’ Association and the U.S. Attorney’s offices, county sheriffs in all 67 counties have agreed to provide permit holders with information about safe firearm transport and to review referrals from federal authorities for possible revocation of the offender’s concealed carry permit.”
Now, it’s important to note that the sheriffs association says its members will possibly revoke carry permits, not that it’s a guarantee. My guess is that those sheriffs in Democratic strongholds will be more inclined to do so, while more conservative and rural sheriffs will be far more reluctant to take such a draconian step, especially when the evidence shows no willful intent to smuggle a gun through security.
I’ve shared my thoughts about these incidents before, most recently when then-Rep. Madison Cawthorn was caught for a second time with a firearm while going through airport security. As I wrote last April:
Now, the vast majority of people who are caught with guns in their carry-on (including Cawthorn) have no malicious intent, but forgetfulness in this case is a crime, even if it’s a minor one. The easiest way to avoid any embarrassing incidents like this is to simply keep your carry-on separate from your guns and ammo at all time, but if for whatever reason that’s not an option just take a couple of minutes to look through your bag before you stuff your travel pillow and a change of clothes in there.
I stand by that advice, though I think revoking someone’s carry license simply because they made a mistake goes way too far. This new move from the U.S. Attorney and Pennsylvania sheriffs could lead to an interesting lawsuit once someone loses their right to carry over a simple mistake, but the best move that Pennsylvania gun owners can make is a preemptive one; double-check to make sure your guns and ammunition are where they’re supposed to be. If you’re traveling with them, that means they’re locked up in a hard-sided container (unloaded, naturally) and have been declared at the check-in counter. If you’re leaving them behind, then make sure your carry-on doesn’t have anything that could get you in trouble. Even a loose round of ammunition may be enough to draw the ire of your local U.S. Attorney, and while a legal challenge to any revocation could be successful it’s far better to avoid putting yourself in that situation in the first place.