NEW YORK (AP) — Mike Connolly thought he was doing everything by the book after a vacation last fall when he packed his handgun for the flight home from New York's LaGuardia Airport.
Following Transportation Security Administration guidelines, the 65-year-old Alabama engineer locked his unloaded Ruger .22 in a hard-sided container, put it in a checked bag, handed it to the ticket agent and told the agent the weapon was inside.
That's when he was slapped with handcuffs, arrested on a felony weapons possession charge and hauled off to jail.
Connolly was one of 25 gun-packing out-of-towners charged last year with traveling armed at New York's busy LaGuardia and Kennedy airports. They were hardly nefarious gun runners. Most were otherwise law-abiding gun-owners who mistakenly thought they had appropriately packed their heat for travel. Over the years, a pro boxer, a Fortune 500 company CEO, a former body guard to the prime minister of Canada and a woman who was seven months pregnant have been arrested under similar circumstances.
Such strict enforcement of one of the nation's toughest gun laws is intended to send a message not to bring firearms to New York in the first place, and that message may be getting through. Officials say increased awareness may be part of the reason such arrests at the city's airports were down by more than half in 2013 from a high of 51 in 2006.
Still, those who have been arrested say New York City's zero-tolerance, no-exceptions enforcement doesn't seem fair. Police who patrol airports in Massachusetts and Connecticut, other states with tough gun laws, said they couldn't remember any cases where travelers were arrested at the check-in counter after presenting their appropriately packed weapons.
Unlike most other gun-possession cases in the nation's biggest city, the airport cases are often reduced to noncriminal violations if the owners can prove there's nothing criminal about their ownership, stay out of trouble for six months, pay a $250 fine and forfeit the guns.
But before that can happen, the defendants usually have to spend eight to 12 hours in jail, hire a lawyer and foot the bill for travel to New York for court dates — costs that can add up to a couple thousand dollars. Lawyers say settling is the best option, because the initial charge is a felony that carries a mandatory 3 1/2-year prison sentence and could bring as many as 15 years.
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