Saturday, May 23, 2009

Security Theater Bredalucion Solidarity!

Update: Here's the link to the locks I mention later in the post.

Reading about Breda's experience being felt up by TSA agents* (and finding on the way back that they might stop at 2nd base if you tell them about your prosthetic leg up front--who says the system doesn't work) made me think about my experience traveling to the Blogger Weekend at the Training Facility Formerly Known as Blackwater. But when she found that all the intrusive, humiliating pretend-security had failed to locate her knife through the use of metal detectors, I felt true kinship. You see, I too have smuggled a deadly terrorist weapon into a secure area. The main difference is that mine was a .45 caliber pistol and ammunition and it went into checked baggage rather than carry-on.

I was sure I had written about this, but I can't find any mention of it other than this short teaser I put up as part of a wrap-up post after the trip:
Guessing game: Can the TSA's Reveal Imaging CT-80 scanner detect a steel/aluminum pistol and one box of ammunition packed in an ordinary pistol case? Place your bets; I'll tell you this evening.
Only, as near as I can tell, I never did tell anyone. Since this was before I acquired the Gun Blog .45, I was using my beloved SIG P220 as a carry gun. I had read the airline's regulations on transporting firearms quite carefully. I was to put the pistol, unloaded, into a locked hard case. The ammunition was to be packed in factory boxes, and I was to declare the firearm at the ticket counter, where I would be given a "declaration" form to fill out. Then, the luggage containing the case was to be taken to the security station, where I could declare it once more and the security professionals would open the case (I bought a specialized lock designed to be opened by TSA keys after being advised that I might be separated from my luggage and the TSA would cut my lock if they couldn't open it--leaving me on my own to find another lock, if I could, or be prohibited from flying with the firearm) and then add my declaration to the case before locking it again and sending my luggage on its way.

Flying with the firearm without the "declaration" form locked inside the case, I found, was considered a serious violation and could land me in a heap of trouble. But when I flew out of St. Louis, the process was no worse than the average professional dental tooth cleaning. It wasn't until the Blackhawk bus dropped me off at the Norfolk airport for my return that the ominously yellowish clouds appeared above the trailer park that was my evening. I declared my firearm and procured my declaration form without incident, then walked my overstuffed baggage about twenty feet to the right, where a grandfatherly gentleman with a kind smile was helping another customer. As soon as he'd finished putting the young lady's bags through the Reveal Imaging CT-80 scanner, he picked mine up and tossed it onto the conveyor.

"There's a firearm in that one, sir," I told him in chipper tones, "but I've got the declaration form here."

"OK, it'll set off the scanner, but we'll get it when it comes out." That sounded fair enough, but it was at this point that my phone rang, and I made the fatal error of answering it as the friendly old man turned to another traveler. I closed the phone and turned back just in time to see another highly-trained security professional pick up my bag and chuck it with considerable panache through the plastic curtain that led to the rear, "secure" area from which it would be loaded on the plane.
"Uh, that bag had a firearm in it! I need to put this declaration with it, don't I?" I asked with my charming midwestern naivete. His shrug was surly, yet expressive and soulful, and he turned and left without a word. I can only assume it was time for a coffee break and the union would have penalized him if he'd stayed to help. I turned to my friendly old man and explained to him that the bag with the firearm had just been panache-chucked into the loading area. I admitted that I hoped no one would think I was attempting to smuggle anything on board the plane. He considered my situation for a long moment, looking from me to the Reveal Imaging CT-80 scanner to the inscrutable plastic curtain as if checking my story and decided that I was telling the truth. He considered my options, the legal and ethical issues involved, and came up with an elegant solution:

"Well," he told me, "it didn't set off the scanner, so I guess it'll be OK."

We're all friends here, so I'm going to admit to a certain skepticism bordering on cynicism. The truth is, I thought he might be kidding. He was not, and he resented the implication. Words were exchanged, gestures were made, but he made no move to retrieve the bag. Strike two for Don. Eventually, I think it dawned on him that I must be very early for my flight and therefore would not sigh and go running for the gate soon, and he offered to get his supervisor. I very carefully and politely told him that I would appreciate it if he would do that for me. The supervisor, alas, did not find my predicament compelling.

"I mean," she allowed, looking up at me earnestly, "it made it through the scanner and didn't alert security, so it'll just get off at the next stop and you can get it then. Are you going to go nonstop from here?"
"Well, no, I have a stopover in Philadelphia first."
"OK, see, the luggage will go straight from plane to plane, so it probably won't go through security again. It'll be fine."
"Uh . . . right, but . . . if it does go through security, or I get caught with an undeclared .45-caliber pistol and ammunition on an airliner some other way, I'll be in Philadelphia. What do I tell them? The TSA supervisor in Norfolk said it'd be OK?"
The next moment was probably shorter than it seemed. There was silence and staring. I blinked, but I don't think she did. In retrospect, I wonder if the synchronizers on the gearshift of her mind were not a bit worn; she seemed to be having trouble downshifting. In the end, life unexpectedly animated her features and a smile spread across her face. She'd had an idea.

"Sir, would you like me to go get the bag out of the back so you can do the declaration?"

"I . . . would . . . appreciate that very much. Thank you."

*Google returns 37,700 results for "felt up by TSA agents." Just thought you should know.


Justin Buist said...

I bought a specialized lock designed to be opened by TSA keys after being advised that I might be separated from my luggage and the TSA would cut my lock if they couldn't open it--leaving me on my own to find another lock, if I could, or be prohibited from flying with the firearmHuh. The one and only time I flew with a firearm was back in 2005 and the rules were that nobody but you could open a locked case. The TSA would often ask for the keys, or combination, but technically speaking you were in violation of the law if you gave it to them.

Got a link to this TSA backdoored case?

Don said...

Basically, you just need to find a lock with the red diamond symbol on it at your local hardware store. I bought mine at Meijer.

It may very well be that they still have a rule against opening firearm cases (as opposed to your standard luggage full of toothpaste, illegal fruit and sex toys) so maybe I spent money I didn't have to, but I needed the locks either way.

Anonymous said...

It appears to be a double edged sword: One side is without the special lock the TSA may have to cut yours off and leave the contents of your case unprotected; the Other side is WITH the special lock you would never know if the TSA opened your case in your absence. It would be best to put two locks through the same hole: 1 standard and 1 special and hope that they only cut the one they don't have the combination to.

Anonymous said...


Johnnyreb™ said...

Ticket Agent Supervisor/TSA Agent in Bozeman, MT called security on me for insisting that the declaration went inside the case with the firearm. She wanted it just laying on top of the case where it could float around inside the suitcase ...

TSA locks for the suitcase, regular locks for the gun cases.

Anonymous said...

I am a screener with TSA, and the blog comments about the agency always peak my interest. At my airport, we don't care one way or another if you have a firearm in your checked luggage. The baggage screening machines are only looking for one thing, explosives. I'm a firearms enthusiast so I like to look at the firearms that people check, but TSA regulations forbid me from touching them. As for us going through luggage, everything we do is recorded on a plethora of cctv cameras, if screeners are stealing, they will be caught and prosecuted.