ATLANTA - Gary Lawrence usually carries a .22-caliber revolver while out walking his dog in rural Georgia as protection against venomous snakes and coyotes. But he says he learned a hard lesson while rushing to catch a flight at Atlanta's airport last month, the firearm forgotten in the pocket of a heavy coat.
In the security line, he took off his belt, boots and leather coat and placed them on a conveyor belt to the X-ray machine when "all of a sudden, I had about five cops around me." One of the officers asked what was in his coat pocket. "That's when it hit me. I knew what was in my pocket. I just sank. I couldn't deny it. I told him the story," said Lawrence, who has a state-issued license to carry a gun.
Handcuffed, he was escorted away to spend a night in jail, charged with a misdemeanor.
Now gun-friendly lawmakers in Georgia want people licensed to carry a gun to avoid arrest if they accidentally bring their firearms into the security checkpoint at the country's busiest airport and willingly leave the security line. It comes as gun-rights groups in Georgia push state lawmakers to broaden the places where people can legally take guns, including churches and bars.
The labor union representing airport security screeners opposes loosening laws banning guns at security checkpoints, especially after one TSA officer was killed and three other people were wounded last November in a shooting at Los Angeles International Airport.
"The public has had 12 years' notice that guns are prohibited," said a statement from David Borer, general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees. "Sooner or later they need to take responsibility for violating the law that's meant to protect our officers and the traveling public."
Other critics say the proposal takes away the penalties for reckless behavior.
"If we have people who are so indifferent and careless with their weapon that they can stand up with a straight face and say, 'Oh, I forgot I had a weapon with me,' that's not the sort of person who should be carrying a weapon," said state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta. "That calls for some stringent consequences."
A total of 111 firearms was found last year at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, more than at any other airport nationwide, according to federal figures, besting even New York's John F. Kennedy with 10 weapons found; Miami with 24; Chicago O'Hare with 16; and Los Angeles International with 19.
In response, airport officials in Atlanta started a public outreach campaign to remind passengers not to walk into security checkpoints while armed. They put up signs and held a news conference to drive the message home.
The proposal emerged after a former speaker of Georgia's House of Representatives, Terry Coleman, was arrested last year when security screeners found a pistol in his briefcase. Coleman acknowledged carrying the gun but said it was an accident. The charges were dismissed after Coleman completed a pre-trial intervention program.
Federal law prohibits people from carrying guns onto planes, though passengers can legally take a firearm if they declare it to authorities and follow rules about storing them in checked baggage. TSA officials turn over to local police anyone caught illegally carrying a gun at a security checkpoint. What happens next depends on local law.
In Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, illegally carrying a gun into the security zone will get fliers arrested, just as it will at Newark International Airport in New Jersey or JFK International Airport in New York. Violators in Atlanta are also usually arrested.
Lawmakers supportive of the plan in Georgia say some wiggle room should be allowed. They want to allow people licensed to carry a gun to avoid being arrested if they are caught at a security checkpoint carrying a firearm and obey instructions to leave. Offenders without a license to carry a gun could still be arrested.
"I would tell you that a lot of people carry a weapon," said state Rep. Alan Powell, a Republican who supports the bill. "It's almost like it's just a second nature to them. And sometimes they forget where they have, you know, they basically forget they've got it in a briefcase or a suitcase."
A local prosecutor, Tasha Mosley, said those caught at Atlanta's main airport checkpoint with guns have included politicians, clergy members, even one woman who was carrying two guns. Many defendants claim they forgot the weapons were there.
Mosley said she once saw a judge who formerly worked as an airport baggage handler lecture a defendant about the time he moved a bag at the airport and a shotgun inside it fired.
"They don't like the excuses, 'I put it in my luggage to hide it from my child. I forgot I had it in my briefcase,'" said Mosley, who carries a handgun for her own protection. "I know where my gun is at all times. I can tell you how many rounds are in it."
The bill has not yet come up for a vote, and its prospects are unclear. Another gun bill failed last year because university officials strenuously objected to provisions that would have allowed people to carry guns on campus. That proposal was dropped this year. A coalition of clergy members has already criticized a provision to overturn a blanket ban on carrying guns in church.
Those convicted of a misdemeanor for carrying a gun into the secured areas of Georgia's airports could face a $1,000 fine or up to a year of probation or prison time. However, charges are dismissed against most first-time offenders if they attend gun safety classes, surrender the firearm they illegally brought to the checkpoint and stay out of further trouble. They do not lose their license to carry a weapon in Georgia. TSA officials can separately fine them up to $11,000.
Lawrence's case has not yet been resolved. He said he would support a law that offers more protection to people who make mistakes, though he acknowledges the incident was his fault.
"I was wrong," he said. "How could I say I wasn't wrong?"