Thirty-five loaded firearms. Seventy-four credit card knives. Two inert grenades. One grenade-shaped vaping device. One live smoke bomb. A dagger tucked into the handle of a hairbrush. Two knives concealed in combs. One knife secreted in the bottom of a shoe. One 8-ounce spray can of bear repellent.
All were found and confiscated by airport security officers across the country during Fourth of July weekend and the week that followed. Perhaps surprisingly, that's a fairly routine catch for Transportation Security Administration screeners, who publish weekly reports on the lurid, exotic, and often deadly weapons they uncover while searching the bags of average passengers. The TSA's blog and Instagram feed provide a steady stream of new photographs: a magazine with six rounds of 9mm ammunition tucked in the pocket of a traveler in Jacksonville; stun guns seized at SFO; fireworks in candy-colored packaging found on passengers throughout the country.
"My favorite was the person who thought bringing a replica IED kit was a good idea," TSA press secretary Ross Feinstein snickers. "It had real ball bearings inside."
Many of these contraband items wind up in police caches or temporary storage units, according to Feinstein. Banned liquids and gels are thrown away, hazmat is destroyed; other booty is declared "voluntarily abandoned property" and shipped to the state surplus office, another spokesman says. There, it can be resold in bulk — sometimes to retailers such as the owner of Berkeley's now-defunct outdoor gear store, Wilderness Exchange. (He kept a bucket of Swiss army knives behind the front counter, which one customer compared to a bowl of Halloween candy.)
"I saw a lot of Swiss Army knives when I worked at checkpoint," an SFO guard who didn't want to be named recalls. "Baggage was more interesting. We found five-gallon [containers] of gasoline, flammables, chainsaws with gasoline in them, and mortars that were mostly going to places like Central America and the Middle East."
Once, the security worker says, he and a fellow employee uncovered an M18 land mine — the kind used during the Vietnam War — in somebody's suitcase. They called a bomb squad to come and defuse it.
Evidently, post-9/11 security restrictions and increasingly rigorous checkpoints haven't stopped people from bringing their weapons into airports. And some security experts believe that no amount of precautions will help. "We can't even keep guns out of prisons," security specialist Bruce Schneier points out. "How are we going to keep them out of airports?"
In fact, the number of people lining up for baggage checks with their guns and knives in tow might just be symptomatic of a larger cultural problem. "We live in a surprisingly weaponized society," Schneier says. Many people won't even leave the house without arming themselves.
"Some people just feel that having loaded guns and knives are so much a part of their daily wearables that they just feel naked without them," Golden Gate University law professor Peter Keane explains.
Charged with preventing the flow of arms through a very specific and narrow barrier, TSA guards are sentries stationed at the front line of an American obsession.
In a nation that's as fixated on protection as it is on combat, spying and ferreting out weapons has become the guards' prime responsibility.
A quick glance at recent TSA reports shows that, unsurprisingly, some areas of the country are more armed than others. Of the 42 guns commandeered between July 3 and July 10, five were found at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, as opposed to one at JFK International and one in San Francisco. The agency has seized 1,075 firearms so far this year — eight of them from passengers at SFO.
But even the more temperate coastal areas have their share of stories. In April, TSA agents opened a woman's bag in Sonoma, uncovering a tray of enchiladas — and a knife doused in mole sauce.
Feinstein is willing to assume the best out of people: that people aren't trying to sneak a weapon aboard a plane so much as just not knowing the rules. Security experts suggest that we're such an armed society that people don't think to leave their guns at home.
In some cases, TSA officials have stowed items away and allowed passengers to reclaim them later. Sometimes they've even allowed people to leave their arms with a family member and step back into the security line.
"They might be able to do that if they have an interesting item that they didn't know was prohibited," Feinstein says, allowing that not everyone is abreast of the ban on brass knuckles or samurai swords. And perhaps some people are too naïve to realize that a fake gun looks just like a real gun when X-rayed.
He and other TSA officials see their duty as gently educating the public about airline luggage restrictions.
"Sure, it's great to share the things that our officers are finding, but at the same time, each time we find a dangerous item, the line is slowed down and a passenger that had no ill intent ends up with a citation or is in some cases even arrested," the administration warns on its website, beneath the weapon photos and punny captions. ("While traveling can be a bear at times, bear repellent is not needed in the cabin of the aircraft.")
To law professor Keane, the TSA's enthusiastic social media presence isn't really helping. "There's a voyeuristic aspect to it," Keane says, indicating that the photos might titillate people rather than admonish them. Not to mention a lot of people will be looking at them as an example. "They'll have an eye toward, 'Oh, what did that person do to get caught, and how can I avoid it?'" Keane says.
Attitudes on the TSA's sites toward carry-on weaponry might indeed seem flip. But the penalties for slipping a gun through a detector are stiff. When a TSA guard spots an illegal firearm, he or she is obliged to call the cops. That might result in the passenger's arrest or citation. Even if police determine no wrongdoing, the TSA usually imposes civil penalties of its own: Anyone caught with a loaded gun gets hit with a fine that could range from $250 to $11,000.
"And," Feinstein adds, "If you're a member of the trusted traveler program, just trust that your status will be revoked."