Calif. Lawmaker Cited After TSA Finds Loaded Gun

Published January 5, 2012 1:18AM (EST)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A Republican state legislator who is an outspoken advocate for gun rights was cited Wednesday for trying to bring a loaded handgun onto a flight.

California Assemblyman Tim Donnelly was detained after a Colt .45 with four rounds was discovered inside his carry-on bag as he passed through a screening machine at Ontario International Airport, said Transportation Security Administration spokesman Nico Melendez.

Another magazine with five rounds was in Donnelly's carry-on bag at the airport, which is 35 miles east of Los Angeles, Melendez said.

Donnelly, a self-proclaimed tea party Republican who lives in the Southern California mountain community of Twin Peaks, said he inadvertently left the gun in his briefcase.

He said he had it close by because of death threats he has received since he began spearheading a petition drive for a referendum to overturn a recent state law that allows illegal immigrant college students to apply for public financial aid.

He told reporters at the state Capitol that he placed the gun in the briefcase to hide it from his wife.

"I didn't want her to see that I had my firearm out because we have received death threats with what I've been working on," he said. "So I do tend to always be armed. The issue is strictly one that I completely forgot, coming back to work this morning, that it was in that briefcase."

Donnelly does not have a permit from the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department to carry a concealed weapon, department spokeswoman Jodi Miller said. That is the law enforcement agency that has jurisdiction over the area in which Donnelly lives.

Donnelly did not respond earlier when reporters asked if he had a concealed weapons permit, and his office did not immediately return a phone message later Wednesday seeking comment on that particular issue.

Any charges for failing to have such a permit would have to come from the agency involved in the original incident, Miller said. Ontario Airport Police Sgt. Belinda Nettles said in an email that "to my knowledge the possession of a loaded firearm is the only charge."

State lawmakers do not have any special exemption that would allow them to carry concealed weapons without a permit, said John Vigna, a spokesman for the Assembly Speaker's office.

Donnelly, 45, represents a largely working-class district east of Los Angeles in a region referred to as the Inland Empire. Before he was elected to the state Assembly in 2010, Donnelly was best known as founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps of California, a group that patrolled the U.S.-Mexico border in search of people attempting to enter the U.S illegally.

Lawmakers who report death threats can obtain additional security, but Donnelly had not reported any to Assembly officials, said Robin Swanson, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles.

"If there are perceived threats against a member, Assembly sergeants or California Highway Patrol will accompany them to public events on an as-needed basis. A significant number (of assembly members) have needed this protection and used it," Swanson said.

Melendez said TSA officials referred the incident to airport police, who cited Donnelly under state law for possession of an unloaded firearm and released him from custody.

Nettles, of the Ontario Airport Police, said the officer who cited Donnelly made a mistake and that the citation will be corrected to reflect that the firearm was loaded. That crime is a misdemeanor with a possible penalty of up to a year in jail and $1,000 fine. Nettles said both the gun and the extra magazine were seized.

The legislator said in a statement released by his office that he boarded the next Southwest Airlines flight without incident.

Federal prosecutors also could opt to pursue charges against Donnelly, Melendez said. Federal regulations allow passengers to carry guns in their checked luggage under certain conditions. About 1,200 people each year are cited for having a firearm in their carry-on luggage, according to the TSA.

"You can take a weapon on a trip with you as checked luggage, as long as it's unloaded and declared to the airline and in a sealed carrying case," Melendez said.

Donnelly last year opposed AB144, which made it illegal to carry an exposed and unloaded handgun in a public place in California as of Jan. 1.

By Salon Staff

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