Jailed airline passenger claims he forgot gun was in backpack

Jun 30 2011 - 10:10am

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Twice a day in the nation's airports, someone does what Tam Nguyen claims happened to him Tuesday at Sacramento International Airport: they show up at a security checkpoint forgetting they have a firearm with them.

This is the explanation Nguyen, a 49-year-old south Sacramento man, gave authorities and The Sacramento Bee in a jailhouse interview Wednesday.

Nguyen was arrested Tuesday in Terminal B on weapons charges when federal Transportation Security Administration personnel found a loaded firearm in his backpack as his belongings went through an X-ray machine.

In an interview at the Sacramento County Main Jail on Wednesday, Nguyen said he simply forgot it was there.

"I would love to get this story out in The Bee so people don't think I'm a stupid terrorist," he said. "I'm not that stupid that I would go to the airport knowing I have a gun in my backpack."

Nguyen said the .22-caliber handgun belonged to his wife's cousin and that he used to go target shooting with the cousin.

Since then, the gun has been stored in the bottom of the backpack for safekeeping, he said. He said he grabbed the backpack on Tuesday and stuffed it with socks, underwear and other travel needs for a Fourth of July holiday trip to visit a friend in Mississippi.

Mindful that he should heed recommendations that he be at the airport two hours ahead of his flight, he was in a hurry, he said. He said knew he would never make it two hours early but wanted to get to the airport as quickly as he could from his south Sacramento home.

Nguyen was in line with his backpack going through the security viewing machine when things came to a halt. He said he thought the machine might be broken.

Then, TSA summoned Sacramento County sheriff's deputies. That's when things got really serious.

He was asked what he had in his pack, Nguyen said. At first he was puzzled by the question.

Then it dawned on him what they were getting at. "Oh, my God. I'm in trouble," Nguyen said he uttered.

Nguyen immigrated to the United States from South Vietnam in 1980 with his family as a young man. He has worked at a variety of jobs: jeweler, car body repairman, cabinet maker and manicurist.

He said that he had cancer in 2003, has little money and cannot make his $60,000 bail.

"I forgot it was there," he said of the handgun.

If Nguyen is telling the truth, it is a scenario played out often in the country, said TSA spokesman Nico Melendez.

"Every day we find at least two guns in our nation's airports," Melendez said. "Typically, passengers just seem to forget they have them in their carry-on bags."

Melendez noted that passengers are permitted to carry firearms onto airplanes if they are declared to the airline in advance, are unloaded and are secured inside a locked carrying case.

He added that rules on carrying weapons outside secure areas of airports vary depending on local laws.

"Carrying it down the street or carrying it through the terminal is a local sheriff's issue," he said. "We just keep them out of secure areas."

A Sheriff's Department spokesman said anyone who has a concealed-weapon permit is allowed to carry the weapon in areas that are accessible to the general public. Once in the security checkpoint area, someone carrying a concealed weapon must be either a federal law enforcement agent or a full-time peace officer.

Nguyen was arrested on suspicion of possession of a firearm by someone convicted of a felony, carrying a loaded firearm in a public place with a previous conviction, and carrying a concealed weapon.

He is not an active parolee but he has a previous felony conviction, a sheriff's spokesman. The department said it could not divulge the nature of the previous conviction.

Nguyen will be arraigned at 1:30 p.m. Thursday.

"The guy is either totally clueless and his story is true and the gun was just stuffed in there, or maybe he thought nobody would catch him," said Sheriff's Department spokesman Deputy Jason Ramos. "Who knows?"

Ramos said there is no indication that Nguyen was intent on hijacking a plane. He called Nguyen cooperative and contrite.

"He just claimed that he was oblivious to the fact that it was in there," said Ramos.

(c) 2011, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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