A lack of barriers in secondary screening areas could be putting air travelers at risk

TSA has not installed full barriers at secondary screening areas more than a year after felon was able to grab and fire gun inside checkpoint
How a gunman accessed his weapon in the security line of the Atlanta airport, and why other checkpoints may be vulnerable. Reported and edited by Brendan Keefe.
Published: Apr. 17, 2023 at 2:06 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

(InvestigateTV/Atlanta News First) - A single gunshot brought the busiest airport in the world to a standstill.

It was Thanksgiving week 2021 when convicted felon, Kenny Wells, reached into his bag while a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer was checking it for weapons at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Wells grabbed the Smith & Wesson 9mm semi-automatic handgun, pulling the trigger in what by all accounts was an accidental discharge.

The gunshot caused a panic.

Wells immediately ran from the secure side of the checkpoint into the airport toward the T concourse while holding the gun, but then turned around and exited through the South Terminal. He blended in with passengers running out of the airport, according to never-before-seen airport surveillance video obtained by InvestigateTV.

Police body-worn cameras recorded the chaos initiated by the echoing gunshot — so loud, an Atlanta Police Department officer assigned to the desk overlooking the main checkpoint initially believed it was an explosion.

Another Atlanta officer was walking a woman’s purse to lost-and-found when the first report came over the dispatch radio. His body camera was already recording audio and video.

“I’ve got some kind of explosion at the main checkpoint,” the first officer could be heard saying over the police radio.

The second officer didn’t draw his sidearm until dozens of people started slamming open the emergency exists of the main checkpoint. He ran to take cover, asking TSA officers running past him for information about a suspect.

A child dropped a stuffed panda bear toy in the stampede. A few passengers and staff members were injured in the sudden evacuation. “A lady just fell down the escalator,” one caller told an airport 911 operator. “She fell and hit her head. She’s bleeding from her head,” the caller added.

A Delta Air Lines staffer also called 911, telling dispatchers, “one of our agents got trampled during this whole rush. He’s in a wheelchair, but he needs medical assistance.”

In all, three people were hurt, but none by the gunfire.

The video & the vulnerability

Official videos of the accidental discharge and the chaos that followed are subject to public release now that the gunman, Wells, has pleaded guilty to a single charge of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. His sentencing is scheduled for May 10 in a federal courtroom in Atlanta. His plea deal calls for a 10-year prison sentence.

InvestigateTV requested the videos after the guilty plea was filed in January of this year.

The videos show Wells was able to reach into his bag after it was flagged for additional screening by TSA. Right after the gunfire, Atlanta police officers asked each other how the passenger was able to access the bag so easily.

“He should never have been allowed to handle it,” the first officer on scene said to his colleague. A sergeant asked if the TSA officer was trying to find the gun in front of the passenger. “They don’t do that,” the officer responded. “They usually leave it up there and make me come and get it,” he added, pointing to a secure area behind the screening machine.

TSA spokesperson Mark Howell told InvestigateTV that a bag with a suspected firearm doesn’t normally end up on the secondary screening table in front of the passenger.

“Usually those are handled by law enforcement,” Howell said. “What happened in this situation was a little bit different because we weren’t one hundred percent sure that it was a firearm from an x-ray image that we saw.”

When screeners are unsure what’s inside a bag that may contain a prohibited item, TSA protocol sends the suspect bag to a secondary screening table where the passenger is told not to touch anything in the bin.

The video shows Wells ignored those commands and repeatedly pulled things out of the bin, finally grabbing the bag when the TSA officer first spotted the gun.

No barriers

In November 2021, there were no barriers at all between Wells and the TSA officer checking his bag for weapons.

Since then, a partial barrier has been added at that secondary screening table, but it was put there to protect officers and passengers from COVID, not guns.

Those partial barriers, in place throughout the secondary screening areas at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, are at face level only. There’s a large gap at the bottom that still allows direct access to the bag during the hand check of flagged carry-on luggage.

“Some airports have full barriers,” Howell said. “Some have barriers with some gaps on the bottom of them. It’s different kind of everywhere because the equipment and the stuff that was placed in the checkpoint during COVID was kind of procured locally.”

InvestigateTV spot-checked airports across the nation. Some, like West Palm Beach International Airport, had full-length barriers in the bag inspection area. Others had no barriers at all. One airport had full-length barriers, but with gaps on the side big enough to reach around or through during the bag inspection.

Howell insisted even the COVID barriers with large gaps offer a level of protection from a similar gun incident.

“It was to kind of create separation between us and the passenger for, obviously, transmission of disease,” he said. “But it also now, though, gives us a little bit more of a standoff from passengers when we’re doing those secondary screenings.”

A gun found every day

More guns are found in carry-on bags at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport than any other airport in the United States.

Last year, 448 firearms were detected at ATL checkpoints, an average of more than one gun per day. TSA said 80 to 90 percent of those guns were loaded.

While Atlanta has the busiest airport in the world, many passengers are changing planes here and don’t go through ATL’s security checkpoint. Hartsfield-Jackson sees about double the rate of gun detections compared with the national average, according to the TSA, though last year ATL saw an 11% decrease in guns detected compared with 2021.

The TSA has launched an aggressive public relations campaign to remind gun owners to leave their weapons at home, or to pack them in approved, lockable cases as checked baggage. Those have to be declared to the airline at check-in.

The campaign appears to be working in Atlanta, where the number of guns detected at checkpoints continues to decline.

A total of 6,572 guns were detected at airports nationwide last year. Most gun owners caught with weapons at checkpoints claim they forgot their guns were on their person or in their carry-on luggage. The TSA has increased civil penalties and fines, and is rolling out a program to put passengers caught with guns through enhanced screenings if police allow them to travel the same day.

Will TSA add full barriers?

At first TSA told InvestigateTV the agency had no plans to add full barriers at secondary screening tables.

During an interview last month in front of Hartsfield-Jackson’s main checkpoint, TSA officials interjected to tell us and the TSA spokesperson the agency had already launched a pilot program to test full-length barriers at Atlanta’s airport.

The new barriers were tested recently at the very same security lane where Wells’ gun went off in 2021. The new barriers were removed — and the old ones with the gaps were reinstalled — because of a reconstruction project currently underway at the main checkpoint.

“We are taking a look in to see how we can integrate that that kind of system into our current security checkpoint modules,” Howell said. “So, if we can do that, we can take a look at that in the future to try and figure out how to build that in.”

How did a firearm go off at the world’s busiest airport? Chief Investigator Brenden Keefe takes you behind the investigation:

ANF+: How did a firearm go off at the world's busiest airport?