By Jake Pearson
Mike Connolly thought he was doing everything by the book after a vacation last fall when he packed his handgun for the flight home from New York's LaGuardia Airport.
Following Transportation Security Administration guidelines, the 65-year-old Alabama engineer locked his unloaded Ruger .22 in a hard-sided container, put it in a checked bag, handed it to the ticket agent and told the agent the weapon was inside.
That's when he was slapped with handcuffs, arrested on a felony weapons possession charge and hauled off to jail.
Connolly was one of 25 gun-packing out-of-towners charged last year with traveling armed at New York's busy LaGuardia and Kennedy airports. They were hardly nefarious gun runners. Most were otherwise law-abiding gun-owners who mistakenly thought they had appropriately packed their heat for travel. Over the years, a pro boxer, a Fortune 500 company CEO, a former body guard to the prime minister of Canada and a woman who was seven months pregnant have been arrested under similar circumstances.
Such strict enforcement of one of the nation's toughest gun laws is intended to send a message not to bring firearms to New York in the first place, and that message may be getting through. Officials say increased awareness may be part of the reason such arrests at the city's airports were down by more than half in 2013 from a high of 51 in 2006.
Still, those who have been arrested say New York City's zero-tolerance, no-exceptions enforcement doesn't seem fair. Police who patrol airports in Massachusetts and Connecticut, other states with tough gun laws, said they couldn't remember any cases where travelers were arrested at the check-in counter after presenting their appropriately packed weapons.
Unlike most other gun-possession cases in the nation's biggest city, the airport cases are often reduced to noncriminal violations if the owners can prove there's nothing criminal about their ownership, stay out of trouble for six months, pay a $250 fine and forfeit the guns.
But before that can happen, the defendants usually have to spend eight to 12 hours in jail, hire a lawyer and foot the bill for travel to New York for court dates — costs that can add up to a couple thousand dollars. Lawyers say settling is the best option, because the initial charge is a felony that carries a mandatory 3 1/2-year prison sentence and could bring as many as 15 years.
"Occasionally, you have a client who quite justifiably is very upset and wants to fight," said Martin Kane, a Queens defense attorney with a website that advertises his expertise in airport gun cases. "You probably could convince a jury not to convict you. But if you lose, your life is over."
Queens Executive District Attorney Robert J. Masters, who oversees the cases in the borough that is home to both airports, is unapologetic about the arrests.
He said it is up to visitors to know that New York has tough gun laws and doesn't recognize permits issued in other states. The TSA also warns that, while appropriately transporting a firearm is legal, travelers should always check the gun laws of states they're traveling in and out of.
"There is, frankly, an element of irresponsibility," Masters said. "They've traveled. They realize that licenses are different around the country. ... They still have this fear, even though this is the safest big city in America, and they think, 'I'm going to bring the gun with me just in case.'"
The practice has been for police at the airport to arrest everyone with a gun, regardless of the circumstances, and leave it to prosecutors to determine how to handle the cases, Masters said.
He said high-profile cases — such as fighter Robert Guerrero, who eventually pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct for having an unloaded handgun in a lockbox at JFK — drive home his oft-repeated advice: "If you love your gun, you're better off leaving it at home."
Nick Johnson, a Fordham Law School professor and an expert on gun laws, said such arrests generate how-to stories in gun magazines and websites.
"When these cases get publicized in the gun culture media, there actually are recommendations of how to travel," he said.
Last year, 1,813 firearms discovered in the carry-on bags of travelers in the U.S. were confiscated by the TSA, he said.
For Connolly, of Madison, Ala., being arrested, spending a night in jail and spending about $4,000 on plane tickets and legal fees has been beyond frustrating. He can't wait for his June court date, when he hopes to have his case sealed.
"Who puts handcuffs on a 65-year-old man for having a gun that's already locked up?" huffed Connolly, who says he grew up with guns and owns a number of them. "I don't get it."