How Can Guns Get Stolen From Check Baggage & Go Unnoticed?

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24/03/2009 – How Can Guns Get Stolen From Check Baggage & Go Unnoticed?

Last week it was reported that law enforcement has busted a theft rings at St. Louis’ Lambert International Airport (STL).  This theft ring was made up of a handful of contractors working for Delta Airlines, and as it turns out the theft ring had been going on for approximately 15 months.

While I am not shocked by the theft ring, and I am even less shocked that these ramp agents worked in a secure basement area that has no security monitoring cameras, I am shocked about one specific aspect of items recovered by law enforcement.

When police completed their raid, they recovered two handguns. These two hand guns had seemingly been removed by the airport thieves from checked luggage!   This to me poses a serious problem with the security of how checked firearms are dealt with in terms of airport security on two fronts.

The guns ended up being stolen one of two ways
1) The guns were properly declared, packed, locked and sent on with the baggage
2) The gun were not properly declared, not locked and secured, packed in regular checked baggage and completely missed by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) baggage screeners.

Lets explore Option #1 first…

When a passenger checks a firearm of any kind they must declare the weapon to the airline counter agent.   The airline must contact the TSA, who in turn often contacts law enforcement to inspect the weapon.   The firearms are inspected to ensure it is not loaded and that the firearm and ammunition are packed properly.

Once the firearm and shipping case inspection is completed, the passenger must lock the TSA approved hard-sided case with locks that DO NOT comply with TSA/Sentry Lock guidelines.  This ruling on locks is in place so that only the passenger may unlock the weapon once it has been secured within the case, and TSA baggage area agents, or anyone else who has access to ‘Sentry Keys’ cannot open the case while in transit.

The secure firearm case is generally marked for ‘special handing,’ tagged and sent along.

Given the security in place for placing a gun into the custody of an airline for transport as baggage it is alarming that the thieves were able to gain access to the locked gun case and get the handguns out of the airport undetected.   This is a serious security breach and one that can cause massive problems with commercial aviation security.

For this crew of thieves to have broken open an approved firearm case and its locks, someone had to notice the bolt cutters being used in a busy baggage sorting room.  If this is the case, where is the oversight?  How did the airline not report losing a firearm in transit? A lost firearm from an airport should have triggered an alert at every airport that handled the firearm case.  Once a gun goes missing in an airport, it means quite simply there is an unknown weapon present in a secure section of a ‘sterile’ airport environment.

…now into Option #2

Option #2 is that two passengers packed their firearm in their regular checked baggage.   They packed their clothes, their shoes, their toiletries, their handgun and maybe some sunscreen; they zipped up the bag and checked in it at the airport without ever declaring their weapon to the airline counter agent.

If passengers are checking guns in their baggage it should be spotted by the Tsar’s baggage screeners.  100% of passenger checked baggage is x-rayed by the TSA. 100% of bags are expected to be viewed by a human and bags with blind spots or something that looks like…oh I don’t know…maybe a gun…is supposed to be opened and inspected by hand.

If multiple guns where checked, unsecured in non-compliant checked baggage, and not spotted by the TSA, there is a serious training issue with the TSA at STL that needs to be immediately addressed.

I have contacted multiple people within the TSA as well as the public affairs office at St. Louis Lambert International Airport trying to find out how ramp agents could come into possession of firearms that were in the checked baggage.  At this time I have only spoken with the Public Affairs official for STL, who only had access to the written protocols for passengers flying with firearms.

I have yet to hear back from any one of the five people I left messages for at the Transportation Security Administration regarding this issue.

Once I can find more answers on how two handguns go missing from two different pieces of checked baggage at one airport I plan to follow up on this issue.

Either way these handguns ended up in the hands of thieves working in the secure ‘sterile’ area of an airport and I am deeply concerned due to the potential ramifications of how this went unnoticed.

Happy Flying!


  1. As an LTSO for TSA, I’d like to clarify a couple of errors in your report. The first sentence under option #1 is correct but the airlines obligation is only to obtain a “declaration” from the passenger that the firearm is unloaded. The airline doesn’t confirm this and TSA doesn’t confirm this. The onus, via declaration, is completely on the passenger that the firearm is unloaded. If we “see” a firearm either in a locked case (like a rifle case) or a firearm via x-ray; we will inquire as to whether a “declaration” was obtained. The airline doessn’t inspect to confirm this, we, as TSA, don’t inspect to confirm this and a LEO (law Enforcement Officer)is not summoned to confirm. If loose ammo is identified, an STSO (Supervisor) will be called and the passenger will be recalled. Some firearm cases will be subjected to additional screening but this does not involve “firearm” inspection as neither the airline or TSA personnel are firearm certified.

    As far as I know, firearms are not identified by “special handling” tags.

    Under Option 2 you state that “If passengers are checking guns in their (assuming “checked”) baggage it should be spotted by …baggage screeners.” You are correct that 100% percent of checked baggage is checked (not necessarily x-rayed) by TSA but “guns” in a checked bag is not a prohibited item and do not elicit a bag check as a declared frearm is not a prohibited. If the passenger places an undeclared firearm in a checked bag, it is between them, the airline and the FAA as far as violations go.

    There would be no “training issues” involved with TSA officers @ STL. I would suggest that not having “security monitoring cameras”… “in a secure basement area” would be a definite airline issue. I would be tremendously surprised if any TSA officers were involved in the theft.

    I just thought you needed to know TSA’s role in the handling of firearms in checked baggage.


  2. Dale,

    You should read the TSA guidelines for traveling with a firearm

    The case must be locked, and locked with a non-Sentry lock. Additionally the firearm is supposed to be inspected. In fact I have had a TSA PAO walk me through the whole process of traveling with a firearm back in 2005 while photographing a story for a major news service.

    There was a very clear procedure of inspection in place to ensure that weapons were unloaded and packed in a secure and conforming travel case.

    Additionally I did not state that the TSA was involved in the thefts. What I stated was that the thieves would have needed to pop the locks or crack the case in a sorting area. Sorting areas generally have multiple people around, so it would be hard to ‘quietly’ pop open a checked gun case.

    Additionally if the guns were not stolen from TSA approved and locked baggage cases, they must have been in standard non-secure luggage and thus missed during the TSA baggage inspection.

    Either way there is a serious security problem posed by anyone who is not a LEO being in possession of a firearm in the sterile area of an airport.

    I have no axe to grind with the TSA or those at STL. There are just serious security issues at play here that seem to be glanced over with the announcement of a theft ring being broken up. Thefts happen all the time at airports by both airport personnel and unfortunately TSA agents, however multiple firearms being stolen from checked baggage should be at the top of everyone’s radar in this incident.

    Happy Flying!


  3. I think you need to read this about what happened to me @ DFW when a TSA agent attempted to STEAL – yes, STEAL – my handgun from one of these basement facilities AFTER it had been declared, the declaration tag TAPED to the outside of the case, AND the bag itself inspected by TSA above ground and the luggage tag was even scanned into their little scanning system to prove it was inspected.

  4. Add Chicago’s O’Hare and Vegas to the list of airports with firearm theft problems. Several of these were finally reported by individual soldiers reporting to combat units. The Chicago suspects were questioned but not arrested due to lact of evidence. Vegas is most recent and I believe there was an arrest there.

  5. I recently had two handguns stolen at LVN airport. I declared the weapons, filled out a statement saying the guns were unloaded and it was placed in the gun case. The counter agent did not verify the guns were unloaded, I never took them out of the case. I was not with the guns when they went through the TSA’s. The clerk told me to leave the locked metal case at the counter. That was two months ago. They were lasted scanned at LVN and were not scanned at a stop over or at my final destination. Security risk, no doubt. The TSA took the atitude, not our problem. Alwasys previously I would have to take firearms to the TSA to verify they were not loaded and that the case was secured. Who made the decision to change this policy at LVN airport? I can’t believe that camera’s or others workers did not notice the theft.

  6. Lizzie,

    This happened at Airlake Airport in Minneapolis, as that is the airport with the code “LVN.” I was unaware that Airlake Airport had any airlines or a TSA presence.

    Can you please clarify this?


    Happy Flying!


  7. I recently lost my firearm while traveling with Delta.

    The entire case never showed up. It was last scanned on board in Mobile, Al. where my trip originated.

    It was also interesting to me how no one with the airlines seemed concerned about having a weapon and ammunition floating around somewhere in an airport.


  8. Jared,

    While no luggage should be delayed or lost, a firearm specifically should not be lost or delayed. They should be tagged in such a way that they become a priority item that is required to move in the same cycle as the passenger.

    Have you contacted law enforcement at each of your connecting airports? Stay on Delta with this and follow up with the police at each connection airport.

    Please update me on what the status of your firearm is if you can.

    Happy Flying!


  9. I’m surprised the firearms were not found in the hands of a TSA employee. TSA is well known for stealing items from the check-in luggage. Atlanta TSA stole the items they wanted out of my luggage: my pocketknife (that was in a sock shoved inside a shoe) and my prescription muscle relaxers (that were in the original labeled container inside a ziplock bag with all my other medicines, placed between my pants and shirts). When I opened my luggage in Dallas, my clothes were no longer neatly folded flat, the sock and empty ziplock bag on top, and my non-narcotic medicines were scattered with only the expensive prescription muscle relaxers missing. I filed the proper forms with TSA and the items were never found, nor was I re-embursed for the theft. Have you ever tried to get a replacement refill approved by health insurance HMO before the time a refill is due? It is less painful to suffer in agony missing work for a month without meds until the refill is due than to battle with the HMO about a replacement refill.

  10. I had a pistol stolen after the firearm was declared, inspected and tagged at both the Alaska Airlines and TSA kiosk. The TSA personnel were very concerned, Alaska Airlines couldn’t care less.
    Amazing…A fully functional 9mm pistol missing on the “sterile” side of the airport. I loath the day I get the phone call notifying me that my gun was used to hurt someone.

    Final note…I was the only person who bothered to report the missing firearm to the local police at SeaTac and Sky-harbor!

  11. I just flew home on UNITED from Chicago O’hare International to McGee Tyson in Knoxville and found my pistol had been stolen at bagge claim. My pistol was properly locked slide open with an approved pistol lock, place in a lock box with a combination lock locking the box. The ammo was in an approved box the magazine was empty. The orange card declaring a fire arm provided by United was signed and dated by me and place on the top of the pistol lock box, and the suitcase zippers locked with an combo lock. I found my bag with the suitcase zipper lock twisted to the left till the lock rings were ripped apart; my luggage was intacked but gone threw and the entire pistol box missing. My toilet bag was opened and dumped in the suitcase. I have flown many times declairing a firearm and very familiar with the rules at hand. However, the last time I seen my bag with my H @ K 45 USP COMPACT SERIAL NO. 29-006215 on 5/30/2010 was in the hands of T.S.A. after it was inspected, bag X-rayed, and placed on the convayer. Chicago police and O’hare airport authorities do not want to deal with the issues. It was literurally like pulling teeth to get Chicago PD to file a theft report. Knoxville McGee Tyson Police filed a report and added the pistol serial no. to the N.C.I.C. database as stolen. My biggest concern for this matter is all the agencies, the airline, T.S.A., local and airport police agencies do not seem to know what to do about the matter. No protocol to follow or investagation, I am told to call someone else and see what they say. Chicago PD tells me it was seccure and stolen at the Knoxville airport, but I recieved my bags as soon as I landed. While in Chicago I had one hour and 40 minutes after checking in till my plane took off for some bastard to ransack my luggage, yet Chicago PD claim it must have happend during the 15 minutes while exiting the aircraft and recieving luggage in Knoxville.

  12. I have been thinking about trasporting a hand gun and ammo. on an airline . I have checked with the airline , for rules of transport , and the bureau of investigation in the state I am traveling to. It’s all legal , but now i’m wondering how secure it is ? Maybe i’ll leave it at home .

  13. Well after reading about all the thefts of so many guns I guess I will leave my gun at home and just buy another gun to leave at our winter home in Florida. What about mailing it to yourself. It might be safer but I’m not sure what the law is on mailing handguns through the mail.

  14. Gary:

    Mailing handguns is perfectly legal, as long as you’re not using the USPS. To mail handguns via USPS, you MUST have an FFL (dealer, manufacturer, gunsmith, etc.). Otherwise, you must use Fedex or UPS. While both services take handguns, you have to ship them via overnight (and insurance is a good idea as well, not sure if it’s mandatory). This can really add up: it’s around $60-80 to ship a handgun one way. If I were you, I’d buy an extra gun to leave in your other house and call it a day.

  15. I recently flew from VPS (Okaloosa County Air Port) to Omaha Neb with a declared pistol in a hard side case inside my suit case. The counter folks at Delta were great to deal with since both air ports are near major military installation and the Delta folks said they are used to seeing guns checked with baggage. However, my bag showed up at Omaha with a broken zipper, the TSA approved lock missing and my clothes wadded, up trashed, and dumped back into my bag, but my gun with case and a box of ammo still there, but in a different area of my bag. TSA or someone even went into my shaving kit and dumped out the contents into my bag! I spend that first evening in Omaha washing my clothes. I felt lucky that TSA didn’t steal my gun.

  16. I have read that it is helpful to lock the handle of a handgun case to the rods on the back(or bottom) of soft side luggage where the handle collapes into. If anything the suitcase will have to be destroyed to remove the handgun case.

  17. Good article. However, as someone who works for TSA, I also spotted an error in your assumptions.

    “100% of passenger checked baggage is x-rayed by the TSA. 100% of bags are expected to be viewed by a human and bags with blind spots or something that looks like…oh I don’t know…maybe a gun…is supposed to be opened and inspected by hand.”

    With carry-on luggage, this would be correct. But with checked bags, no. All checked baggage is not inspected by human eyes. Most of it is not. Setups vary by airport, but in fact, most baggage is cleared by machine, and only baggage that alarms is inspected by a person. I’m not at liberty to say what the machines are programmed to look for. However, the assertion that human eyes clear all checked luggage is simply untrue.

    As far as bad apples at TSA, sure, there are some, especially in large urban areas. However, it is important to note that TSA officers undergo an extensive background check that far exceeds anything that the airlines’ baggage handlers go through. It is also true that most TSA officers inspect baggage under the eye of cameras and video recorders, while baggage handlers work on the tarmac and in other places where cameras do not exist. Finally, TSA will handle your bag only once on a trip, and baggage handlers will touch it 4-6 times on average. So if an item goes missing, it is far more likely an airline issue than a TSA issue. Of course, you should always report a loss to TSA. TSA management will investigate, and if you have a legitimate case, they do provide compensation and they absolutely do fire officers who steal.

  18. I recently flew on United/and Delta MAF/IAH/MSP/AMS/DAR ES SALAAM
    with my Rifle, which was inspected in MAF and locked as per instructions. I waited until it has been cleared by TSA. I had registered it with Customs and enclosed a copy of the Certificate inside the case. I had a transit permit for Holland and notified both Delta and KLM of this. When I arrived in Tanzania (my final destination) the rifle case did not arrive. I immediately filed a mishandled baggage claim at the airport. I was in Tanzania for a month during which time I constantly checked to see whether the firearm had arrived. I had several people checking with Delta and KLM and as far as I can ascertain from the printout of the “mishandled baggage report”, it was last scanned from MSP to AMS (and it even has the name of the person doing so) but it never arrived in Amsterdam. This indicates to me that it was probably stolen in MSP. I have filed a Baggage Inventory form with KLM and a property loss claim form with Delta. I have contacted the ATF, who says that they have no interest in personal firearms. What avenues are open to me now? Please advise me on how take this matter further, because if it was in fact stolen out of a secure area, it is a serious breach of security, and obviously leaves the way wide open to other breaches f security.

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