TSA worker missed X-ray image of Wilson's gun
The senator may still face a fine, other penalties
December 14, 2023
An airport security worker failed to detect a revolver stowed in Longview state Sen. Jeff Wilson's carry-on luggage when he was boarding a flight from Portland to San Francisco on Oct. 20, a federal investigation has found.
"We are confirming that a TSA employee failed to detect the firearm on the X-ray image during security screening operations," Lorie Dankers, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, said by email Dec. 9.
Dankers said the agency is prohibited by federal security regulations from disclosing further findings. The agency is also prohibited by "privacy considerations" from revealing the identity of the TSA Portland security worker or any disciplinary action the employee may face.
The finding helps corroborate Wilson's versions of events: that he unknowingly brought his .38 caliber revolver through security in a carry-on and only found it mid-flight while flying from San Francisco to Hong Kong. It rules out, for example, that he tried to smuggle the gun past security by hiding it on his person.
Nevertheless, Dankers confirmed that TSA is pursuing a "civil enforcement action" against Wilson, 63.
"TSA's civil penalty guidance provides a range for fines that TSA can levy against a traveler who brings a firearm to the security checkpoint. The civil penalty enforcement range for bringing an unloaded firearm to the security checkpoint is $1,500 to $5,370," Dankers said in the e-mail.
She declined to give a timeline for when the case may be closed.
Dankers said the federal Privacy Act of 1974 prohibits TSA from disclosing further information, including what enforcement action it may take, unless Wilson consents to its release.
Wilson did not return texted requests for comment.
It is against federal law to carry a firearm through an airport security checkpoint. Firearms can only be brought aboard through checked and locked luggage.
Wilson, a Republican who represents Southwest Washington's 19th District, said following the incident that he did not know his firearm was in his carry-on until he discovered it mid-flight between San Francisco and Hong Kong.
Wilson and his wife were headed to a five-week vacation to Southeast Asia. They were checked through in Portland and did not need to resubmit to security checks before boarding their flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong.
Initial press accounts in Hong Kong said Wilson was arrested when security officials there found the firearm in his luggage. Wilson, though, says he self-reported his mistake to authorities.
In Hong Kong, where private gun ownership is rare and strictly controlled, Wilson was charged with possession of a firearm unlicensed in Hong Kong. He was detained three days before his release on bail Oct. 23.
A week after his initial arrest, Wilson's case was settled through a so-called blind-over order, which is an agreement between the court and the defendant requiring the accused to maintain good behavior for a specified period - two years in Wilson's case. It is neither a punishment nor a conviction.
In agreeing to the order, the prosecution noted that Wilson was cooperative and had a clear record in Hong Kong, according to Hong Kong news accounts.
At the time, Wilson said in the statement that he had packed quickly and failed to check the contents of his bag and that his "heart sank" when he reached into it mid-flight for chewing gum and realized his mistake.
Hong Kong authorities confiscated the weapon, which Wilson said was licensed in Washington, where he has a concealed weapons permit. But the revolver is not registered in Hong Kong, where the penalty for carrying an unlicensed firearm there can result in fines of up to $12,800 (U.S.) and 14 years in prison.
TSA: mistakes are rare
Dankers said it is rare for guns to escape detection at U.S. airport checkpoints, even though fake weapons frequently pass through TSA checkpoints during tests.
"Our officers are very skilled and proficient in the detection of firearms at the checkpoint," Dankers said in her email.
"TSA officers at Portland International Airport (PDX) have now detected 51 firearms at the security checkpoint in carry-on luggage since Jan. 1, 2023. Of those, 93% have been loaded. Nationwide, TSA officers have discovered more than 6,300 firearms in carry-on luggage at airports since the beginning of the year."
She reported initially that TSA investigated the incident by reviewing security screening images, closed-circuit TV recordings of the PDX security checkpoint and interviewing TSA employees who were on duty at the time.
In follow-up questioning, she acknowledged that a TSA worker failed to spot the gun in an X-ray image.