Discretion trumps local law barring guns at MKE

Posted at 10:29 PM, May 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-26 13:21:01-04

MILWAUKEE – The normal comings and goings at Mitchell International Airport Concourse C came to an alarming halt the morning of Sept. 13, 2013. An X-ray machine flashed the outline of a gun on a display screen, alerting to a potential firearm inside a carry-on bag.

Federal law prohibits dangerous weapons from the screening areas.

Milwaukee County ordinance prohibits firearms – concealed or otherwise – from inside the unsecure portions of the airport terminal.

The gun was real, according to records of the incident, discovered in the bag of a Wisconsin concealed carry permit holder.

Despite the obvious violation of local and federal laws, the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office declined to seek charges against the man. He was sent through security to make his flight after a brief interview and background check.

It was a by-the-book example of how Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke selectively enforces the law when it comes to firearms inside the airport.

Documents obtained by TODAY’S TMJ4 detail 12 incidents between March 2012 and April 2015 where firearms were concealed inside carry-on baggage at Mitchell Airport.

In every incident where the gun belonged to a concealed carry permit holder, the Sheriff’s Office declined to seek charges against the traveler.

In the two cases where the traveler had no license to carry a concealed weapon, the person was cited and the incident was referred for charges.

On Sept. 13, 2013, the gun was discovered about 9:55 a.m.

Agents from the Transportation Security Administration halted the X-ray machine, trapping a potential weapon inside. 

A call was made to the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s airport division.

At that moment, the two agencies began separate investigations into what had happened.

Sheriff’s Office records of the incident show the gun’s owner was a pilot for Compass Airlines, heading to catch a flight to Minneapolis.

His firearm was a .45 Taurus loaded with armor piercing rounds. The pilot’s flight bag also held a second magazine, loaded with the same ammunition.

When questioned, he produced a Wisconsin concealed carry permit.  He had no credentials that would allow a firearm on an aircraft.

The pilot told MSCO deputies he came to the airport unaware the firearm was in his bag. To a deputy, he stated plainly he “screwed up.”

When the investigations were complete, the TSA cited and fined the traveler $1,500 for violating federal law.

The Sheriff, however, declined to enforce any penalty for a violation of the county ordinance.

Instead, Sheriff’s deputies put the pilot’s firearm into a locker at the airport “for safekeeping,” according to a report on the incident.

The pilot was then allowed to continue on his way.

Sheriff Clarke is an outspoken advocate for 2nd Amendment rights, including the right to carry a concealed weapon.

In a tersely worded e-mail responding to questions for this report, Clarke called his selective enforcement of the county ordinance a “prudent use of discretion,” adding “I trust [concealed carry permit] holders.”

But to Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, the Sheriff is in the business of enforcing the law as it is written.

“It is not his choice to selectively enforce a law that is extremely important to the safety of the public,” Abele said.

“If he wants to lobby against the law, he's free to do that, but he swears an oath like every other elected official in America to uphold it.”

In the dozen incidents reviewed for this report, the TSA was generally consistent with its enforcement of the law. In each case, federal authorities declined to seek criminal charges for bringing a firearm to the checkpoint. Instead, travelers were issued civil violations and fines ranging from $650 to $3,000.

Aviation security consultant Jeff Price said he understands why Sheriff Clarke would want to give concealed carry permit holders the benefit of the doubt. He said that position is also a gamble.

“The risk is still out there. Some of these guns are a test of the system. People are still engaged in criminal and terrorist activity,” Price said.

While concealed carry is also legal in Illinois, bringing guns to the checkpoint will not fly at O’Hare or Midway Airports.

A spokesperson for Chicago Police, which enforces local law at those airports, said it has no tolerance and will “arrest any individual who attempts to bring a licensed firearm through a security checkpoint.”