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Georgia debates leniency for guns taken to airport

| Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014, 9:24 p.m.

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 take their firearms into the security checkpoint at the country's busiest airport and willingly leave the security line. It occurs 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 since one TSA officer was killed and three other people wounded in 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,” state Sen. Nan Orrock said. “That calls for some stringent consequences.”

A total of 111 firearms were 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.

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