ASHEVILLE, N.C. (WJZY) – One of the most tense moments of a flight can happen long before you ever get close to an airplane. Through the front doors of most every airport, just past the ticket counters is an army of uniformed federal agents waiting on you.
To check your identification and to search every inch of your belongings.
Those Transportation Security Administration agents were inside the Asheville Regional Airport on Feb. 13 when U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn plopped a bag down on the conveyor belt and it rolled into a scanner.
Cawthorn had a loaded 9mm Glock inside, according to police records.
The incident, although nearly six months old, was made public last weekend by a political group looking to oust the first-term Congressman. Cawthorn’s district, the 11th Congressional District, covers the western end of North Carolina.
FOX 46 filed requests with the Asheville Regional Airport for records related to a police call involving Cawthorn. The airport released a “noncriminal” police report and property form, but the airport redacted all information showing Cawthorn’s name in the reports.
The airport also redacted sections of radio traffic recordings provided to FOX 46. The recordings identify Rep. Madison Cawthorn as the owner of the pistol identified in the Feb. 13 police call.
“Can you respond to the checkpoint, reference a loaded firearm?” a dispatcher asks an unidentified officer in the recording. “I’m going to need someone to respond with me to that,” the officer replied.
The recordings indicate the Department of Public Safety captured the serial number off Cawthorn’s gun and ran that information through the National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, a national law enforcement database used to identify fugitives and stolen property.
“That’s a negative on 29s on the handgun…and he’s also negative on NCI (inaudible),” an officer tells dispatchers after running the gun’s serial number through the database. The check showed the gun was not reported stolen in the past.
The police radio recordings also show officers were aware of who they were dealing with.
“414, be advised it’s going to be elected official Madison Cawthorn’s firearm,” an officer radioed into the dispatch center, “Elected official, Madison Cawthorn.”
“An elected official,” an unidentified voice responded, “Yes. House of Representatives elected official,” the officer responded. “Copy that. It doesn’t make a difference, you’ve still got to get the information and they’ve got to have the proper channels to carry it through,” an unidentified officer responded in the reporting.
Cawthorn, like seven other people who’ve carried a firearm into TSA screening in Asheville, was not charged with a crime. The recordings show airport police working with Cawthorn to hold his gun for him so he did not miss his flight.
“What we’re going to do, we’re going to escort the individual out to his vehicle and allow him to secure it,” an officer on scene with Cawthorn told dispatch in the recording. “We’re going to step out to the vehicle, let him stow the weapon and then try to get him back to security for his flight,” the officer said.
“Their flight leaves in seven minutes. What I’m thinking is we’re just going to keep the firearm and he can take it back when he comes back through,” the officer continued. Airport police property records show officers collected the 9mm pistol and one loaded magazine.
After taking Cawthorn’s gun, he went back through security to be scanned again and went on his way, the recordings indicate.
“I’ve got his information (inaudible) he’ll be the one picking up the weapon,” the officer said in the recording.
Although the TSA does not have law enforcement authority and calls in local jurisdictions when suspected crimes happen in airports across the country, the agency does have the authority to assess civil fines for security violations.
Carrying a loaded firearm through a TSA security checkpoint carries a minimum of a $3,000 fine up to a maximum fine of $10,000 and the possibility of federal prosecution. A repeat offender could face a fine of up to $13,910 and a criminal referral for prosecution.
Unloaded firearms carry TSA fines of $1,500 to $2,475 and the possibility of a criminal referral.
The TSA would not confirm whether Cawthorn – or any of the other seven firearm calls at Asheville this year – were fined by the TSA or were referred for criminal prosecution.
TSA will not comment on specific cases; however, I can tell you all who are caught bringing firearms through TSA checkpoints are referred for civil enforcement as prescribed by the Enforcement Sanction Guidance Policy. Those who are members of TSA PreCheck lose the benefits of TSA PreCheck for a prescribed period of time. TSA sanction guidance provides a baseline $1,500 fine for an unloaded firearm and baseline $3,000 fine for a loaded firearm, which may be increased based on aggravating factors. While state laws vary regarding firearms, TSA contacts local law enforcement to respond to firearm incidents, and accordingly state and local authorities may impose their own criminal sanctions. Regardless of the local response, TSA investigates firearms violations at TSA checkpoints for civil enforcement.Mark Howell, TSA Spokesman
“When enforcing, our public safety team looks for willful and intentional criminal intent to determine how to handle each situation. Without exception, firearms are either seized and the passenger charged or arrested (if criminal activity has been determined); otherwise, when no criminal activity is determined, the firearm is voluntarily and appropriately removed and safely stored before the passenger may continue to their flight,” Asheville Regional Airport spokeswoman, Tina Kinsey told FOX 46.
“Discretion is used to police these matters in reasonable ways, focusing more on securing a firearm safely,” Kinsey wrote in an email in response to clarifying questions from FOX 46.
Cawthorn will not face state charges despite state and local laws banning firearms inside the airport.
Cawthorn’s office declined an interview request Monday. The congressman’s office also would not answer whether the TSA assessed a civil penalty against Cawthorn or if he’s aware of a criminal referral.
“Five months ago, while boarding a flight, Rep. Cawthorn erroneously stowed a firearm in his carry-on (that often doubles as a range bag) instead of his checked bag. The firearm was secured and unchambered. Rep. Cawthorn endeavors to always follow TSA guidelines, and quickly rectified this situation before boarding his flight,” Cawthorn’s Communication Director Micah Bock wrote to FOX 46 in a text Monday.
The government confirmed to FOX 46 that Cawthorn, along with anyone caught with a firearm at a TSA security checkpoint, is referred to the TSA’s civil enforcement process. The TSA would not confirm details of Cawthorn’s enforcement case.
Airport police records show a claim ticket for the handgun dated Feb. 22 indicating Cawthorn picked the gun up from the police station one week later.