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Rep. Madison Cawthorn tried to board plane with gun; could face fine, status loss

  • July 31, 2021

ASHEVILLE – U.S. House member Madison Cawthorn had his gun taken by airport police and will likely face a federal fine and loss of a special security status, local and federal officials said.

The Republican congressman representing Western North Carolina’s 11th District was attempting to board a plane Feb. 13 when Transportation Security Administration workers found an unloaded gun in his carry-on bag, along with a loaded magazine, according to Asheville Regional Airport officials.

The weapon was described in a redacted incident report and police radio traffic recordings as a “Glock 9mm handgun.” 

Cawthorn, whose spokesman responded to questions July 30 saying he brought the gun by mistake, was not charged with any crime, according to reports and other information on the incident obtained this month through a public records request. That is a normal outcome, said spokeswoman Tina Kinsey.

“In 2021 so far, eight firearms were reported at the checkpoint, and in every case, no criminal charges were filed,” Kinsey said, adding the passengers’ firearms were secured and they were allowed to travel without their guns. 

Cawthorn’s gun was secured at the airport, and he retrieved it after his flight, Kinsey said.

In the recordings, an officer can be heard repeating several times to another officer that there was an elected official found with a gun.

“Elected official, Madison Cawthorn, with a firearm,” he said.

Police then discuss what to do with the gun, at one point saying they might have Cawthorn take it out to his car. Later they say because his flight is in seven minutes, they will secure it.

Criminal rules about guns in airports vary widely around the country per local and state laws, said TSA spokesperson Mark Howell.

“In New York they perp walk you out of the airport in handcuffs,” Howell said. “In Georgia, you can open carry anywhere. It’s different everywhere.”

Bringing criminal charges is left to local law enforcement. At Charlotte Douglas International Airport city police normally charge people with guns under a city ordinance that makes having a firearm at a checkpoint a Class 2 misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail, said Charlotte attorney Brad Smith, who defends people accused of bringing guns to the airport. 

“I’ve never defended anybody in Asheville, but if that is the position Asheville takes that is a 180-degree different approach than Charlotte-Mecklenburg,” Smith said.

While Asheville’s airport is in the city, the municipal government does not have control as with Charlotte.

The Republican-majority state legislature stripped a board made up of city and Buncombe County appointees of oversight in 2012. The General Assembly gave control to a new Greater Asheville Regional Airport Authority, which makes it owns rules. Those say “it shall be unlawful for any person, except those persons to the extent authorized by federal law and/or state law, to carry or transport any firearm or weapon on the airport property except when such firearm or weapon is properly encased for shipment.”

Breaking that law is considered a criminal misdemeanor, according to airport ordinances. It was not clear why the eight people, including Cawthorn, had not been charged. Kinsey did not respond the afternoon of July 30 to questions about the rules.

TSA rules say guns can be transported unloaded in special checked bags with hard sides and cases. In almost every incident, people found with guns on their person or in checked bags say they brought the weapon by mistake, said Howell.

Cawthorn’s spokesman Micah Bock said that happened with the congressman.

“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,” Bock said July 30.

Cawthorn tries to always follow TSA guidelines, he said, and “quickly rectified this situation before boarding his flight.”

Cawthorn has made the right to own and carry different types of guns a central platform. During the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection he said that he was armed, a potential violation of House rules. 

Regardless of reasons people give, in almost all cases those found to be improperly transporting guns face federal civil fines, said Howell, noting an elected official would not be excluded from the potential punishment.

He declined to comment on Cawthorn’s case but said the Feb. 13 incident was “still pending.” The process can take months, Howell said.

Fines are typically $2,000 for an unloaded firearm and $4,000 for a loaded firearm for the first incident, he said, though Smith said they can be as big as $30,000 in more egregious cases.

It is not clear if this was Cawthorn’s first violation. In his response to the Citizen Times Bock did not answer questions including whether the congressman had been found before with a gun at an airport checkpoint. 

If Cawthorn has a pre-check status, an expedited boarding procedure given to those with special security clearance, he will also likely lose that. Howell said anyone found boarding with a gun typically has that status suspended or revoked.

“We can’t deem you a low risk any more if you are bringing weapons in your carry-on bag to the checkpoint,” he said.

Joel Burgess has lived in WNC for more than 20 years, covering politics, government and other news. He’s written award-winning stories on topics ranging from gerrymandering to police use of force.

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