Is that a gun in your baggage, or are you just glad..

Take it from someone on a plane: guns in *checked* baggage are not a security threat. The mental metonymy that makes them seem so is a liberty threat, and one that I hope our institutions will forestall.

I fly a lot. I’m writing this (thanks to in-flight Wi-Fi) on a plane soon to land at LAX.

Yet I agree with Robert Poole at Reason’s blog: the gun that tumbled out of a checked bag at LAX is no threat to me.*  How could it be? Yes, it should have been packed unloaded (which is apparently the law): there’s always a chance that a gun could accidentally fire, at risk to the plane, if some idiot leaves the safety off.  But a little reflection makes clear that there is no way a gun in checked luggage could conceivably be used in a hijacking—except if we assume some Mission: Impossible level of crazy plotting. And if we care to assume that we can think up much more plausible ways of executing in-air violence successfully.

I hope Poole is wrong that politicians will use this as an excuse to give the TSA more authority. One of the central purposes of a representative democracy, not to mention one that makes use of experts, is to save us from random synapses that don’t represent real reasons.

Here’s a textbook case illustrating the principle.  The only question is which chapter of the textbook we’ll put it in. Representative and expert democracy will work exactly as they ought to here. Or they won’t.

*To the literalists in the peanut gallery:  I realize that a gun in a checked bag flying out of LAX is by definition no threat to a flight arriving into LAX. But one might expect me to be scared in general at the prospect. I’m not and I shouldn’t be.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

20 thoughts on “Is that a gun in your baggage, or are you just glad..”

  1. “One of the central purposes of a representative democracy, not to mention one that makes use of experts, is to save us from random synapses that don’t represent real reasons.”

    So thought Eddie Burke, in his speech to the electors of Bristol. But this only works if: 1.) The electors understand this; or 2.) Either: a.) Elections are not competitive or b.) Representatives will nonetheless do the right thing, even thought they might lose the election.

    We live in a society where 1.) Electors looooove their random synapses and 2.) both a.) Elections are most competitive when random synapses are stirred; and b.) Representatives would rather the heavens fall than lose an election.

    In other words, I predict that Andrew will put this case into the unhappy chapter of his textbook.

  2. Um, Sabl, you do understand that an unloaded handgun in checked luggage is perfectly legal (some declaration is, I believe, required, and the virtue of that requirement seems debatable, though it might simplify the screening process)? You’re acting like this incident was nothing, and it wasn’t: dude was a moron, at best, and put lives at risk. He will undoubtedly be punished, to encourage better behavior in others. And – given that what he did was already illegal, and rightly so – I don’t see why you’re all concerned that some new rules will result.

    1. Warren,

      First, Sabl does seem to actually understand that unloaded firearms are permitted in checked baggage because he says so in his post but I’m confused about what point you’re trying to make. If you’re saying that people were endangered because this passenger put a loaded firearm in his bag and didn’t declare it so that a warning tag could be put on the bag then I think what you are saying makes some sense. (The risk of accidental discharge by TSA agent inspecting bags and being surprised or foolishly assuming it was unloaded is what’s being protected against).

      If, however, that’s not the risk you’re concerned with, then could you please describe how this poor fellow put lives at risk? (I ask this because I find your offhanded dismissal of the requirement that people who might handle or open the bag be warned that it contains a potentially loaded gun to be at odds with your assertion that this passenger endanger lives)

      Second, there is a reason why everyone is taught to always treat every gun as if it’s loaded. This is the reason. I don’t know what what the civilian or military equivalent of “days off” is but that’s what would be appropriate here. The risk of accidental discharge through carelessness or mishandling is ever-present and need to be guarded against (and good practices need to be constantly reinforced) but I really don’t see the point of treating this poor man like public enemy #1. I’m sure he feels badly enough already and will probably be hyper-careful in the future. What not give the guy a break?

    2. Checked hand guns had to have a label showing there was a gun inside and the locks left open. First time I checked a gun, it made it through fine. The next two disappeared. Yeah, tell those minimum wage baggage handlers that there is a gun inside.

      Brilliant.

  3. To the writers in the peanut gallery.

    If a over the pacific bound plane leaving LAX was hijacked just after takeoff (within 2 hrs) it would have very full gas tanks, that’s why you screen all bags regardless of destination.

    but checked bags with declarations being restricted would be ridiculous (obv those people would be closely observed, or should be, by the marshal), there are legit reasons to transport a gun, but there should be regulations banning all physical access to checked bags (checked pets in a sep area so emergency access is possible)

    ps, a flight Into LAX would have nearly no fuel on board, so would be next to useless as a massively destructive weapon, you know, the opposite of a flight Leaving LAX.

    1. Actually, I’m pretty sure that the reason why the bags are checked is to make certain that people aren’t putting bombs in their luggage. This is a vastly more serious threat than the idea that somebody would check a gun (and ammo) and then somehow retrieve that weapon after clearing security but before it reaches the hold. That’s totally a silly movie plot. I don’t think it can be done without lots of inside help but any terrorist who actually had the help of well positioned insiders certainly wouldn’t bother with such a convoluted plan. He’d just have his insiders plant whatever he and his fellow hijackers need right on the plane so they would be easily available to him.

      In any case, the amount of fuel on board seems totally irrelevant. Flying a plane full of innocent people into a landmark building is probably a sufficient “statement” for any terrorist regardless of the amount of fuel on board. I think all these guys care about is that there’s enough fuel to fly to their target.

  4. I am generally of the opinion that our airport security system is heavy on security-theater, and generally a poor application of safety-promoting resources from a cost/benefit perspective. That said, an undisclosed loaded gun packed so loosely in a checked duffel bag that it could just fall out is probably a more serious threat than most of what TSA gets its undies in a bundle about. That bag almost certainly got slung around in a crowded public area when it was checked, and would have been again on arrival.

  5. Which politicians, exactly, are trying to give the TSA more authority? Speaking of people getting their undies in a twist for no reason…

  6. Way back when before planes were bombs, a suggested scenario for terrorists (or at least to defend against) was to pull weapon out of checked bag and shoot up baggage area or the like, since carry-ons were being searched.

    1. This doesn’t make sense. By the time that they’re arriving in a security screening area, their checked bag would be just that – checked an unavailable. As for shooting up the airport, that’d be best done in the line waiting for search – hundreds of people in a mass, making a perfect target.

    2. A plane in flight has unique vulnerabilities, although on vast experience we know it is statistically extremely safe, even counting 9/11 and all other terrorist incidents. Other than that, airports are just another crowded place. A hypothetical just-shoot-some-people terrorist would have little reason to choose an airport, and an excellent one to go elsewhere — namely heightened security in airports.

    3. Just because it doesn’t make sense or seems pretty unimpressive DOES NOT mean that it wasn’t considered a threat, especially in the 70’s.

      1. Still doesn’t make sense that it was ever actually considered as a threat because at every airport I’ve ever been in it’s possible to go directly to the baggage check area from the street so there is no need to go through the more convoluted process of checking your bag, traveling on an airplane to the target and then retrieving your bag and weapon. So what’s the point of putting a gun in your checked baggage? Besides, if a terrorist is looking to shoot-up lots of people at an airport there are much easier and more certain ways to go about it.

        1. Early aviation security theatre, that’s all. Sense or reason or plausibility is not #1 issue, appearance of action is.

  7. Jewelry gets stolen out of checked luggage. Ditto for computers and other valuables. It may be legal to put a gun in your bag, but I don’t think it’s such a great idea. My less calm reaction to the sanctity of guns is that enough is enough and that I’ve had it with these motherf**kin’ Glocks on this motherf**kin’ plane.

    1. But there are, in fact, quite a lot of people who travel armed either because they are carrying valuables or for their work. There are also a lot of people (myself included) who sometimes travel with firearms for recreational purposes. There really does need to be a way for people to be able to check their firearms at retrieve them at their destination and the present system works pretty well.

  8. It’s legal to have an unloaded gun in a locked case in your luggage. That they could be stolen is an economic risk to the owner but not a security risk to anyone else.

    1. Not a security risk to anyone else on the plane. But I would guess that a stolen gun is much more likely to wind up in the hands of someone who is a security risk to someone else, though that someone else was not a passenger on that plane.

  9. Jay, that’s more or less why gun owners object to the “gun inside” tags that get put on their baggage; Do you see bags checked with “expensive laptop inside” tags? “Easily fenced jewelry inside” tags? No, it’s only gun owners who have their valuables specifically identified for the convenience of thieves..

    1. I think the nature of the valuable object being checked more than justifies the requirement that bags contained checked firearms be tagged. There is, after all, no such thing as an unloaded gun. There are only guns which you think are unloaded (but which you must always treat as if they were loaded). Baggage handlers and TSA agents are entitled to be warned that there is a gun in a bag when they are handling the bag and especially when they are inspecting the contents of the bag.

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