Few armed travelers at Orlando airport now face jail

Travelers with concealed-weapon permits surrender guns, receive court notices


May 27--Concealed-weapon-permit holders no longer face going to jail for carrying a firearm into preflight screening at Orlando International Airport.

Armed travelers with state permits now surrender their guns, receive court notices and are allowed to continue their travel plans. In the past, violators were arrested and taken in handcuffs to the Orange County Jail.

With 42 arrests last year, OIA was the state's strictest airport when it came to gun-toting travelers -- with or without permits. But this year there have been only four arrests -- of which two were permit holders with a gun, records show.

The last arrest of a permit holder with a gun at the airport on Feb. 15 came three days after former police Chief Paul Rooney stepped down. He had set a zero-tolerance policy at OIA, saying ticket holders must be held accountable if they break the law by carrying a gun into a federal Transportation Security Administration checkpoint.

Since then, none of the nine concealed-weapon-permit holders caught with guns have missed a flight under Chief John Mina's new police administration. The most recent catch and release was Saturday when the 14th gun of the year was spotted by TSA.

By state law, police have the discretion not to make arrests in misdemeanor cases. That's what concealed-weapon-permit holders face if caught with a gun in a place prohibited by law.

"No one gets a pass," said Deputy Chief Robert Pigman, who discussed the new policy when Mina was not available for comment. "Those folks are given a charge, the charges are filed with the State Attorney's Office and the State Attorney's Office will take it from there."

Orlando's new policy follows similar practices at other Florida airports and gun-friendly states such as Arizona, Colorado, Georgia and Texas. Florida has 1.25 million concealed-weapon-permit holders, which is more than any other state, records show.

"By and large, what we see are people making mistakes," said Pigman. "They generally are remorseful for what has happened, and many, many are in tears and, in fact, are embarrassed they forgot the gun was in their bag."

Gun owners without concealed-carry permits face a felony for the same mistake. And Pigman said officers assigned to OIA continue to arrest and take them to jail.

A review by the Orlando Sentinel of arrests at 15 U.S. airports last year found the numbers of guns detected were significantly lower in states with strict firearms laws and the ratio of arrests was significantly higher. At Boston's Logan Airport, all six gun cases ended in arrests and eight out of nine did at New York City's John F. Kennedy Airport.

"It's a political issue for police departments now," Arthur C. Hayhoe, executive director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said of firearms bills and the gun lobby's strong influence over the state Legislature.

Second Amendment advocates, however, are pleased by Orlando's stance.

"It definitely sounds like a much more reasoned response to what's a misdemeanor crime. What they were doing previously was an overreaction," said Sean Caranna, founder of Florida Carry, which defends and seeks to expand the right to carry arms for Floridians. "We definitely welcome this change."

Nearly all of last year's airport gun cases at OIA were dropped or sent to pretrial diversion.

For a conviction, prosecutors must prove a concealed-weapon-permit holder intentionally broke the law, according to the State Attorney's Office and defense attorneys. Whatever happens, anyone stopped with a gun by TSA screeners still pays $1,000 to $3,000 in federal fines for first-time offenders.

To reduce airport gun incidents, Orlando police support posting no-gun signs around the terminal and in airport parking lots. Last week, Greater Orlando Aviation Authority spokeswoman Carolyn Fennell wrote in an email, "The no-weapons sign installation project is now completed."

hcurtis@tribune.com or 407-420-5257

Guns this year at Florida airports

--Tampa: 24

--Fort Lauderdale: 19

--Miami: 18

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