Media reports are expressing alarm about the fact that a loaded handgun was found by Alaska Airlines baggage workers loading bags on to a flight at LAX on Sunday. The Los Angeles Times declared, "Security officials at LAX fail to detect loaded gun in bag," The gun fell out of a duffel bag that had been screened along with the rest of the checked baggage for the flight.
Despite all the hand-waving, guns in checked baggage are not illegal (though they are supposed to be disclosed to the airline and packed unloaded). Nor are they a threat to the safety of flights. And the idea that TSA should minutely inspect everything in checked bags would not only add costs and time to the bag-screening process. It would also make an already overly-intrusive TSA into even more of a threat to people’s privacy and liberty.
We need to distinguish here between what is being looked for at passenger checkpoints and what is being looked for in checked baggage. At the passenger checkpoint, TSA is instructed to look for anything that might be used as a weapon by a passenger during the flight—knives, guns, explosive vests, underwear bombs, shoe bombs, etc. Many aviation security experts believe, correctly in my view, knives and guns are not as serious a threat as they were prior to 9/11. That’s due to both strengthened and locked cockpit doors and the vigilance of passengers and cabin crews to resist any attempt to gain access to the cockpit.
Checked baggage screening is a different story. Here, the threat being guarded against is explosives. It is to detect explosives in checked bags that airports and the TSA have spent billions purchasing several thousand huge explosive detection machines. They use equipment similar to CAT scanners to check for objects with a density similar to known explosive substances. If a potential object of this type is detected by the machine, the bag is flagged for closer visual inspection.
If TSA policy were changed to require the baggage-screening system to flag any bag containing a long list of items not permitted in carry-on bags (knives, guns, etc.), the number of flagged bags would soar. Inspecting all of them by hand would require more airport security screeners, and significantly more time. That would balloon TSA’s already bloated budget and could easily make flights depart late, further inconveniencing air travelers.
Even more serious, in my view, is that this would further interfere with the right to travel unmolested. TSA is not a law enforcement agency. Yet mission creep has affected the agency from the start. A good example is its Behavior Detection Officer program, which now has several thousand agents standing around observing passengers in airport terminals, taking aside for questioning any that look suspicious (based on a check-list each BDO must memorize). That program has not caught a single would-be terrorist. But TSA touts as successes its having nabbed scores of illegal aliens, people carrying small amounts of drugs, etc. There are serious civil liberties issues in giving a non-law-enforcement agency this kind of power. Pawing through people’s checked luggage for things that pose no threat to aviation would only expand this threat.