WASHINGTON -- The Transportation Security Administration may allow airports to ban firearms from terminals, parking lots, roads and other airport areas where many states currently allow passengers to carry lethal weapons.
Airport officials and lawmakers are watching closely as the TSA weighs a request by Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to modify its security program to impose an airportwide ban on guns. It is the first such request to TSA from an airport.
"Any decisions we make that affect (Atlanta) could affect every other airport in the country," TSA spokesman Christopher White said Thursday.
Federal law bars passengers from bringing weapons to or past airport checkpoints. But in many airports, state law allows passengers to carry guns and knives in unsecured areas such as a main terminal -- often to airport officials' dismay.
"I don't really like the idea of people coming here with weapons and carrying them into terminals, but that's their right as citizens of the state of Texas," said Alan Black, public safety chief at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
In Atlanta, the issue arose last month after the state passed a law to allow Georgia residents with gun licenses to carry firearms onto public transit vehicles, including subways, buses and airports. When the city-owned airport vowed to maintain its long-standing firearms ban, GeorgiaCarry.org, a gun rights group, sued.
On July 17, after the lawsuit was filed, the request from Hartsfield officials asked the TSA to amend its airport security program to include a gun ban. Each of the nation's 450 commercial airports has a detailed written security program that can be changed only with TSA approval.
Hartsfield's effort is backed by airport groups and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who plans hearings next month on airport efforts to ban guns. "If airports think (guns) should not be allowed, they should have the right to modify their security plan to reflect that," he said.
The Airports Council International said in a recent letter to Hartsfield, "There is no justification for permitting firearms at any airport." Policies vary from state to state and from airport to airport. Some bar guns fully, others allow them, sometimes in areas such as a parking lot, said Charles Chambers, the council's security chief.
Hartsfield spokesman Herschel Grangent said that someone firing a gun in the airport would force a massive evacuation that could disrupt flights nationwide. Hartsfield, with 89 million passengers in 2007, is the world's busiest airport.
GeorgiaCarry.org lawyer John Monroe said the airport gun ban jeopardizes personal safety: "You might like to have a gun in your car because you come home on an 11:30 p.m. flight."
The TSA is "trying to work through some complex legal issues," said spokesman White. He gave no timetable for a decision. Courts may ultimately decide whether an airport can override state law and prohibit guns by adding a ban to its security program, Chambers said.