Assemblyman Tim Donnelly had a quick explanation Wednesday for why he brought a briefcase containing a loaded .45-caliber firearm into Ontario International Airport: He goofed.
Donnelly was cited on a misdemeanor charge of possessing a loaded firearm a Colt Mark IV with four rounds in its magazine, plus a spare magazine with five rounds, said Nico Melendez of the federal Transportation Security Administration.
Screeners at the Southern California airport detected the firearm as Donnelly prepared to board a Southwest Airlines flight to the capital for the Assembly's first 2012 session.
"It was an unfortunate mistake," Donnelly told reporters later. He said he "tends to always be armed" because of death threats he has received since launching a referendum to overturn the Dream Act, a new law to permit some undocumented immigrants to qualify for state-funded college aid.
The 45-year-old Twin Peaks Republican, in a radio interview, said his problems began Saturday when he was in his garage with the gun on a workbench nearby.
"My wife came home and I haven't wanted to go into a lot of the detail with her about this, so I stuck it in the nearest bag," said Donnelly, a businessman and founder of a chapter of the Minuteman Project, a citizens group that monitors the border to combat illegal immigration.
Donnelly said he completely forgot about retrieving the weapon, even after entering Ontario airport.
The briefcase "was about as heavy as it is when I carry my laptop, so it didn't register," he said.
Donnelly said he was standing in stocking feet, waiting for his briefcase to clear inspection, when a friendly airport screener's facial expression suddenly changed and a supervisor was called.
Robin Swanson, spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, said that Donnelly had neither reported death threats to Assembly officials nor requested extra security.
The Legislature had been adjourned from Sept. 9 until Wednesday.
Swanson urged against rushing to judgment.
"He deserves due process just like anyone else," she said.
Airline passengers legally can transport firearms via airline flights, but the weapons must be unloaded and contained in a proper carrying case that is checked into the baggage compartment, not as a carry-on, Melendez said.
Donnelly's gun was booked into the Ontario Police Department but he was not. The conservative Republican and supporter of gun ownership rights was cited, released, and arrived in Sacramento in time for a noon floor session.
Donnelly faces a maximum punishment of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine, said Sgt. Belinda Nettles, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Airport Police.
A fine of up to $10,000 also can be levied by the Transportation Security Administration when guns are confiscated, although no decision has been made in Donnelly's case, Melendez said.
Bringing a loaded, concealed weapon into an international airport can be grounds for arrest, not just citation. It also can be filed as a felony or misdemeanor, depending on circumstances, Melendez said.
One highly publicized case involved Shaun Rogers, a Cleveland Browns nose tackle in 2010 who was taken to jail after a .45-caliber handgun was found in his carry-on bag at an Ohio airport.
Los Angeles Airport police did not say why they opted to charge Donnelly with a misdemeanor citation.
Sacramento County Sheriff's Deputy Jason Ramos was not familiar with Donnelly's case but said officers have discretion to jail or to issue citations after evaluating factors ranging from criminal history to potential public danger.
Ramos said he recalled one gun-carrying offense at Sacramento International Airport that ended with a jail booking last year, another in which the suspect was cited and released. "There's some wiggle room there," Ramos said.
It wasn't immediately clear what authorization, if any, Donnelly had to carry a loaded weapon. The lawmaker had not obtained a concealed weapons permit from San Bernardino County or from the Assembly, according to officials of each. Ownership of the .45-caliber handgun was not immediately clear, either. The Department of Justice said gun registration records are confidential.
Assembly Republican colleague Kevin Jeffries of Lake Elsinore described Donnelly as a hunter and a gunman. "Everybody makes stupid mistakes, and this is clearly one of those mistakes," he said.
But Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, characterized the incident as "pretty serious" and said the public deserves answers. "Carrying a loaded firearm isn't something you forget, especially with the tight security and regulations about screening at an airport," he said.