By Kathy Jefcoats
ATLANTA — Georgia lawmakers want to add a felony element to the misdemeanor law governing guns found in baggage at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
The airport is geographically in Clayton County but is patrolled by the Atlanta Police Department.
Nearly all first-time firearms cases made at the airport are prosecuted in Clayton County State Court. Repeat offenders face felony charges in Superior Court.
The proposed bill makes it a felony to bring a firearm to the airport for the purpose of committing a felony.
Solicitor General Tasha Mosley said Atlanta police arrested 57 travelers with firearms in their baggage in 2011. In 2012, that number nearly doubled to 100. So far this year, officers have made 10 arrests.
Because most are first-time offenders with no criminal history, Mosley approves them for participation in State Court’s pre-trial intervention program. The program includes community service, probation and a fine. Successful completion of PTI allows the defendant’s record to be expunged.
Nearly every defense she’s heard involves the defendant having hid the firearm from children.
“Everyone’s defense is they hid the gun in their baggage to keep it from their kids, packed around it and forgot it was in there,” she said. “Or they were on their way to a business meeting, threw the gun in their briefcase and completely forgot about it. There’s always some version of that.”
People with carry permits can bring a firearm into the public areas of the airport. Travelers who make the proper provisions with the Transportation Safety Administration can even take along their firearms in checked baggage. The law prohibits firearms from being brought onto a plane in carry-on baggage.
Every traveler caught going through TSA security at Hartsfield with an unauthorized firearm is arrested and taken to the Clayton County Jail. That person must make an appearance before a Magistrate Court judge — and that almost always involves an overnight stay in the jail.
Police have arrested attorneys, businessmen, business owners, athletes and people in the music industry.
“There is a way to travel with your firearms,” said Mosley. “I tell people all the time, pre-plan, get to the airport three hours early, take care of your business and keep going.”
Mosley isn’t hopeful the bill would deter offenders.
“This bill isn’t adding any teeth,” she said. “I think the Feds should step in and not let you fly for a period of time. Right now, these people are paying a fine and not thinking anything of it. Ban people from flying and you’ll get people to start thinking.”
Mosley also thinks Georgia lawmakers should see what is working in other states with major airports.
“Whatever is working in other places, adopt something along those lines and you may make a true difference,” she said.
Mosley supports gun rights and understands the debate.
“But I do believe there should be reasonable restrictions on it,” she said.