Atlanta airport leads in guns found by TSA as Georgia laws loosen penalties

ATLANTA — As Atlanta police continue to search for the man whose gun went off over the weekend at a security screening at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, 2 Investigates is looking into the changes in Georgia law that have limited penalties for those caught with a gun at airport checkpoints.

What used to get you at least a night in jail now normally ends up with just a slap on the wrist.

Gunshots sent travelers running and scrambling Saturday but three days later police are still looking for convicted felon Kenny Wells. Atlanta police say Wells lunged after his gun when it was spotted by a TSA agent at the airport main security checkpoint.

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Guns found during TSA screenings, often loaded, have become nearly a daily occurrence at Hartsfield-Jackson.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Justin Gray checked the numbers and found that every year for the past five years, Hartsfield-Jackson has led the nation in firearms flagged at TSA checkpoints. This year has already doubled 2020 and more than 100 above 2019, with 450 guns discovered so far in 2021 at ATL.

“If you have a weapon, leave it at home,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said.

Bottoms told Gray that the guns at the airport are part of a larger issue.

“What it says to me, it really speaks to the number of guns that are on our streets,” Bottoms said.

Channel 2 Action News has covered dozens of people arrested for guns at Atlanta’s airport, forced to spend a night in the Clayton County Jail, handcuffed, including an NFL player and a state lawmaker.

A change in policy in Clayton County in 2013, and another change in the law passed by the legislature in 2014, made it so instead of a night in jail, most licensed gun owners found with a gun at screenings are now just cited and released with a TSA fine.

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Clayton County state Sen. Valencia Seay believes tougher penalties would mean fewer guns at the airport.

“It does need to be fixed and the proof is in what just happened,” Seay said.

Security expert Trenton Higareda, from CTI Consulting, helps airports design security screening areas.

“Now that we know this is something that could happen, we need to mitigate that risk,” Higareda said.

Higareda says a physical barrier could have prevented Wells from lunging for the gun.

“You could put a plexiglass barrier so that the person can see inside the bag, but they aren’t able to touch the screener or the bag itself,” Higareda said.

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APD says patrols near security checkpoints have been increased, and that they will be reviewing their response to this incident to determine whether any changes need to be made.

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