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I read the other day that Transportation Security Administration agents last year discovered a record number of firearms in airline carry-on luggage.

The TSA reported collecting 4,432 such weapons from passengers in 2019, or more than 12 each day, 87 percent of which were loaded.

I'm living proof of how easily this sort of thing can happen to those of us with short memories.

Eighteen years ago I wrote about my experiences with this same breath-sapping scenario while living in Phoenix. That column was prompted by a story about a woman who'd just experienced a related firearms incident, and I wrote it primarily as a warning to other forgetful types with handguns who travel by airplane.

So much for admonitions. Apparently, all these years later several thousand fliers by 2019 obviously hadn't read about my enjoyable experience, which I repeat below:

"Yes it can"

Oct. 13, 2002

"I felt empathy pangs after reading not long ago of the woman who tried to board an airplane with a loaded .357 revolver she said had been mistakenly placed in her luggage. Believe me when I tell you how quickly that nightmare can become a reality.

"The year was 1988 and I was leading the investigative team at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix. My predecessor in the job, Don Bolles, had been murdered by a car bomb 12 years earlier. Bolles' slaying occurred during his investigation of land fraud in a state where people could legally carry guns in plain sight.

"Anonymous threats against reporters in Phoenix were not that rare even a decade later, and our team had aggressively resumed Bolles' land-fraud investigation where he'd left off.

"Without children around, I kept a loaded revolver beneath the bedroom mattress strictly for self-protection. Movers accidentally exposed the pistol one day as I was changing residences. I hurriedly looked for the nearest convenient place to tuck it safely out of sight.

"My hanging bag was the only thing left unpacked in the bedroom. So I unzipped the largest compartment and casually dropped it in. I made a mental note to be sure to replace it beneath the mattress after the bed was reconstructed in my new home later that day.

"Fast-forward three weeks. I am standing in the carry-on X-ray line at Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport, heading for a reporting conference in Atlanta. I smile at the attendant as she scans my hanging bag. Suddenly her cheerful face dissolves into a frown.

"'Sir, can you please tell me what you are carrying in your luggage?' Her stare becomes icy. Trying to be witty, I respond: 'Oh, let's see now, toothpaste, underwear, a stove and refrigerator, my birth control pills.' Not even a hint of her earlier smile. 'Are you by any chance carrying a toy gun in there?'

"'A toy gun?' I responded incredulously. Then the panic of epiphany strikes my gut like the bottom dropping out of an elevator. My body actually went cold. Everything shrunk and shifted into slow motion. A wave of fear-inspired nausea rolled through my stomach and body.

"'Oh my God, I forgot to take the gun out of that bag when I moved a few weeks back. And it's way too late now,' my thoughts raced.

"I try explaining what has happened. But every uttered syllable sounds like yada-yada excuses echoing in a cavern. The only relevant facts at that moment: There is a loaded gun in my travel bag and I obviously have contracted a bad case of dementia idiotitis.

"After several moments of defensive blather, I asked the woman to summon the authorities, which she did. Two cops soon arrived. One gingerly removed the pistol with a pencil. I looked at the ceiling, then at my shoes, then out the window at the blue sky and tried to look innocent as the crowd gasped in unison.

"'This can't be happening to me,' I kept thinking. 'And was such a peaceful morning only five minutes ago.'

"Those traumatic minutes are emblazoned in my psyche as a monument to how low it is possible for me to feel. How could I have been so stupid? The officers then escorted me to their airport basement office, where I explained further and called the newspaper to share what had happened. The editor then telephoned the U.S. attorney to offer even more explanations and mea culpas.

"The officers actually had been understanding of my mistake, relating how something similar had happened to a flight attendant several weeks earlier after she boarded her aircraft and accidentally dropped her gun in the aisle. They also explained how fortunate I was to be in Arizona, where there was no law against boarding an aircraft with a loaded weapon.

Their comments provided a whiff of cheer, but I didn't know just how much until I arrived in my destination of Atlanta and asked a policeman there what would have happened had the gun not been discovered until I was departing that airport to return home.

Sure enough, he said, 'We have a real strict state law about trying to board an airplane with a gun here in Georgia. It brings an automatic year in jail.'

"Phoenix police had confiscated my revolver. It was submitted to the FBI, where it vanished for three months while undoubtedly being run through every unsolved homicide in the Western Hemisphere. That was fine. The last thing I wanted during those months was to look at the thing again, as if it somehow was at fault for creating my own mess.

"Then one morning I was summoned to the Phoenix FBI office, where a stern agent presented a 20-minute lecture on the proper storage of guns in the home and while traveling, followed by handing me a brown sack containing my revolver.

"Thirty-two years later, I still felt sympathy pangs when I read about that recent unfortunate woman whose own blunder occurred during today's much stricter post-9/11 airport security climate. And, imagine this, I've not placed my pistol in luggage ever since."

Laura Nichols' Nod

Laura Nichols of Eureka Springs recently sent me her GodNod story.

"This story began back as far as I can remember. As a child I was always sickly. I would run a fever and dealt with digestion problems.

"Mother's cure was always castor oil, and that would always make me feel better. When I was 12 that didn't help. I came home from school with a severe pain in my left side, which got worse until Saturday night when the pain let up.

"By Monday morning I was very sick and was rushed to the hospital where the physician told my parents my appendix had ruptured and I was filled with gangrene and would not live.

"I prayed and told God that if he would let me live I would serve him. Praise God, he healed me! Now I am 82 years old and have the privilege of still serving him."

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]

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