Testing the Integrity of TSA Airport Security Checkpoints

Testing the Integrity of TSA Airport Security Checkpoints
(or how to get on the Homeland Security Watchlist without really trying)

Recently, I had to take a business trip from Sacramento, California to Dallas, Texas that required a 3.5 hour flight on a major commercial airline to get to my destination. I got everything in my suitcase that I needed to bring for my business conference, but needed to carry my laptop and my oboe with me on the airplane, as their combined value was in excess of $8000.00. I had a concert to play in on Sunday, the day I returned from Dallas, so I was not going to leave my oboe in the trunk of my car. I decided that I would bring my small backpack, one that doubles as a range bag for my husband’s and my personal business, Focus on Defense, and for trips to Front Sight in Pahrump, Nevada, as well as various ranges in the Sacramento region. It has padded shoulders and is quite roomy, so could hold both expensive and delicate items with room to spare. This backpack also has numerous zippered pockets, pouches, crevices and other areas where I could stash valuables without fear of losing them. It makes a perfect range bag. This is where my story begins.

The day of my trip came and I got to the Sacramento International airport an hour behind schedule, after a late start from home and after dropping our three dogs off at the doggie hotel in West Sacramento. After taking the shuttle into my terminal, I checked my suitcase and proceeded to the security checkpoint. As I went through the security checkpoint, I noticed it was taking inordinately long to get my backpack through the screening machine. It seemed to have gotten hung up in the middle of their x-ray scanning machine. Not good. Then I heard the dreaded words no traveler wants to hear – “Super visor, please!” The TSA rep called for a manager to take a closer look at my backpack. My blood pressure started to rise, thinking I may have missed an empty shell casing (as several had been removed while in the process of packing), gunpowder residue from a live round or spent cartridge, or some other unknown and presumably dangerous contraband.

The TSA supervisor hustled over, mumbled some words to the TSA agent, then grabbed my backpack and briskly strolled over to me, where I was standing in front of the stainless steel inspection table. “We need to search your backpack” he asserted without any hesitation. I said, “Sure, no problem.” He admonished me to stay clear of the table, not to put my hand across the barrier or try to impede the search in any way. I complied. He proceeded to remove my laptop, my oboe case, music, oboe reed cases, an apple, a neckstrap for my oboe, a couple of pistol training manuals, as well as other assorted items. He opened every case, fingering each item, looking for something that looked dangerous.

Finding nothing suspicious, he said he was going to rerun my backpack without the items inside. The items were put in an open tray which would also go through a second time. I nodded in agreement, but inwardly, was getting nervous. My forehead was starting to perspire and my palms were getting a bit warm too. I was sure they were going to give me the green light after the second screening. However, after a second run through the X-Ray machine, he came back to the inspection table where I was standing patiently and said he was going to continue to search some more. “Here we go again!”, I thought.

At this point, I started getting even more anxious, as I was thinking perhaps the x-ray machine was picking up something long forgotten from the shooting range – still buried in my range backpack- but somehow hidden from their suspicious eyes. Maybe it was just gunpowder residue? Inwardly, I said a prayer, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

After more groping in the backpack for another minute through some interior pockets, the TSA supervisor reached in and – in what seemed like slow motion – pulled out a 5-inch stainless steel Front Sight embossed thumb-assisted knife. Ahh haa! That was the culprit! How in the world did I miss seeing that when I was packing? I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, knowing that I was going to lose a perfectly good and expensive knife to the bottomless pit of TSA’s garbage bin. I had obviously missed finding the knife during my pre-flight backpack inspection. He looked at the knife and asked me if I wanted to take it back to my gate (about 1/8 of a mile away in another part of the terminal) and try to get it into my checked baggage. The time was growing short as my flight was leaving within the next 30 minutes.

I thought about it and said, reluctantly, that I did not have enough time to get to the airline counter, plus my luggage was probably already on the plane. He asked me a second time to reconsider, probably realizing that the knife was commemorative and expensive, but I said that I did not think I had enough time to make it back to the gate in time for my flight. So, it was “Bye Bye” Front Sight knife! I offered the knife to the TSA supervisor as a peace offering, but he said they were not allowed to accept gifts. So into the garbage it would go, unless he pocketed it without anyone’s knowledge. He obviously knew the value of it, which is why he was trying to get me to go back to the terminal and put it in my checked luggage. I was then allowed to continue my journey past the security checkpoint and my flight to Dallas continued without a hitch, albeit a slightly lighter backpack.

We now fast forward to my return trip from Dallas on Sunday. I was feeling very good, as I was extra early to the airport, having taken the first AM shuttle from my hotel. I arrived at the airport confident that my backpack was free of all contraband and that I would breeze through the security checkpoint with no issues. Wait, not so fast! I noticed another small group of TSA agents AGAIN hovering over my backpack. They were talking amongst themselves and did not look happy. It was déjà vu all over again!

My backpack was pulled from the x-ray machine and placed on the stainless steel inspection table. This time, I knew the drill. I knew this time to stand a foot away from the inspection table and to keep my hands to my sides. So I just stood about a foot away, trying to maintain my dignity and composure. I felt that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach returning. “What now?” I thought. I had dumped the contents of my backpack out on the bed the night before….felt every crevice, every pocket, every zipped lining….nothing. I was absolutely positive there was nothing in there that could cause this situation. I was wrong.

The TSA officer asked me to step aside while he hand-searched my backpack again, opening everything, including my oboe reed cases. He fingered the end of one of my reeds, seeing if it was sharp. He admitted he thought the oboe reeds looked like darts. “No, they are oboe reeds”, I explained. “ I play oboe and so please be careful with them as they are quite delicate and expensive, about $20.00 each.” He painstakingly looked through every zippered compartment of my backpack, through all of the pockets. I was confident that I was home free – until he pulled out what appeared to be a harmonica. I thought, “Wow, that’s weird! Why is there a harmonica in my backpack?”

Then all of a sudden, I realized that was NO harmonica. It was a 40 caliber magazine for my Springfield XD 40! Oh God! How did I manage to miss that? I thought, well, “At least it’s empty. It can’t be such a big deal. “ That was not the case. The TSA considered it a big deal.

Fifteen minutes later, after relinquishing my California drivers license, my airline boarding pass, my NRA Certified Instructor card (to prove that I was a good guy) and most importantly -my pride- one of the TSA agents came back over and told me they would need to confiscate the magazine. I would not be allowed to take it on board the airplane. I said, “it’s an EMPTY magazine, why is that a problem?”  He stated that if they allowed GUN PARTS on board, perhaps a team of people could conspire to bring a bunch of other parts and assemble a “deadly weapon” on the plane.

Throughout this whole ordeal, the TSA agents had huddled in a corner behind their desk, flipping through their rule book, making several phone calls to their superiors, as well as probably checking my credentials out with the FBI, CIA, Interpol and other espionage agencies. I could almost hear them whispering about this dangerous security breach. All the while, I stood patiently (but anxiously) waiting the fate of the magazine and my return trip home. It occurred to me instantly that their decision makes sense IF they allowed guns and live ammunition, but an EMPTY magazine? Come on! What could be the harm of an empty magazine? They knew I was an NRA Certified Instructor! What were they afraid of? Would I hit someone over the head with the empty magazine?

The lead TSA agent finally came over to me and told me that they were taking the magazine.  I decided to ask him to clarify my options for me one more time. I remained calm, but inwardly, I was annoyed. He admitted that they could not let me carry the magazine on board, but that if I wanted to go outside the security checkpoint, there was a way to mail home the contraband item for a nominal fee. This sounded like the best option to me as I did not want to lose a $40.00 magazine. I was already in hot water with my husband, Casey, for relinquishing the $200.00 Front Sight knife.

The lead TSA officer was thoughtful enough to walk me outside the security checkpoint over to a kiosk. He then showed me where I could mail my magazine, using my credit card to charge the $11.95 fee. You fill out a form with your address and credit card information, put the item in a clear ziplock bag and it will be mailed back to you. This seemed a small price for the convenience of not losing this “dangerous” item. (Note: It is unfortunate that the Sacramento International Airport does not have this service, or I could have used that for the more dangerous pocket knife.) The TSA agent gave me one final warning….they could have “fined me heavily” for this breach of security, but this time they were giving me a pass. Gee whiz! That was mighty nice of them!

So, my story ends here. I am a bit sadder, but wiser. I am disappointed to have given up a perfectly wonderful knife worth a lot of money and priceless sentimental value, as well as to pay $11.95 to mail my empty 40 caliber magazine back to myself, but figure it was a good lesson to learn. My advice to all my gun shooting friends and enthusiasts out there is to NOT use your range bag when traveling through an airport. There are too many chances for something to turn up unexpectantly. After all, it was my fault for not checking the backpack thoroughly before attempting to “breach” the security checkpoint. I truly have only myself to blame. Lesson learned.

The irony of this whole story is that despite their thorough search, the unloaded 40 caliber magazine passed through Sacramento’s TSA checkpoint – BUT they found the pocket knife. However, at both the Sacramento and Dallas TSA Security checkpoints, they also missed confiscating yet another dangerous and lethal item buried way deep in the bottom of my backpack….

When I got back home, I emptied my backpack and I found a FULL BOTTLE of WATER!!! How did both TSA checkpoints miss that ? Sacto TSA missed catching the empty magazine and the water, but found the knife.  Dallas  TSA found the empty magazine,  but not the water. I am still not sure how Sacramento TSA missed the 40 caliber magazine….even with a secondary screening. They must have thought it was a harmonica!