ATLANTA — A woman flying through Philadelphia’s airport last year remembered to pack snacks, prescription medication and a cellphone in her handbag. But what was more important was what she had forgotten to open: a loaded .380-caliber handgun in a black holster.
The weapon was one of 6,542 guns the Transportation Security Administration seized at airport checkpoints across the country last year. The number – about 18 per day – was an all-time high for guns stopped at US airports, and there is growing concern at a time when more Americans are armed.
TSA Administrator David Pekoske said, “What we see at our checkpoints really reflects what we’re seeing in society, and more people in society are carrying firearms these days.”
With the exception of 2020, interrupted by the pandemic, the number of weapons seized at airport checkpoints has increased every year since 2010. Experts don’t think it’s an epidemic of hijackers – nearly all claim they forgot they had a gun with them – but they stress the danger that even a gun could be in the wrong hands on a plane or at a checkpoint Is.
Guns have been intercepted literally from Burbank, California, to Bangor, Maine. But it tends to happen more at larger airports in areas where the laws are more favorable to gun carrying, Pekoske said. Texas on the top 10 list for gun interceptions in 2022 includes Dallas, Austin and Houston; three airports in Florida; Nashville, Tennessee; Atlanta; Phoenix; and Denver.
Pekoske isn’t sure that the “I forgot” excuse is always correct or that it’s a natural reaction to being caught. Regardless, he said, it is a problem that must stop.
When TSA employees see what they believe to be a weapon on the X-ray machine, they usually unzip the belt so that the bag remains inside the machine and the passenger cannot reach it. Then they call the local police.
The effects vary depending on local and state laws. The person can be arrested and the gun can be confiscated. But sometimes they are allowed to hand over the gun to a non-flying companion and continue on their way. Unloaded guns can also be carried in checked baggage following proper procedures. Woman in Philadelphia saw her gun confiscated and was fined.
Those federal fines are tools of the TSA to punish people who bring a gun to a checkpoint. Last year, the TSA increased the maximum fine to $14,950 as a deterrent. Travelers also lose their PreCheck status—it allows them to bypass some types of screening—for five years. Used to happen three years ago, but about a year ago the agency changed the rules by extending the time. Passengers can lose their gun along with their flight. If federal authorities can prove a person who brought a firearm through a checkpoint in what is called a sterile area of the airport committed a federal crime.
Retired TSA officer Keith Jeffries said the gun interception could also slow down other passengers in the line.
Jeffries said, “It’s disruptive, no matter what.” “It’s a dangerous, prohibited item and let’s face it, you should know where your gun is, for crying out loud.”
Experts and officials say the increase in gun interceptions simply reflects that more Americans are carrying guns.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade group, tracks FBI data about background checks completed for firearms sales. The number was a little over 7 million in 2000 and about 16.4 million the previous year. They went even higher during the coronavirus pandemic.
This can be nerve-wracking for TSA officers searching for prohibited items.
In Atlanta, Genesia Howard was monitoring an X-ray machine when she realized she saw a gun in a passenger’s laptop bag. She immediately flagged it as a “high-threat” item and the police were notified.
Howard said it felt like her heart dropped, and she was worried the passenger might try to get a gun. It turns out the passenger was a very apologetic businessman who said he simply forgot. Howard says she understands travel can be stressful but people need to take care when getting ready for a flight.
“You have to be alert and pay attention,” she said. “It’s your property.”
Atlanta’s airport, one of the world’s busiest, with nearly 85,000 people passing through checkpoints on a busy day, saw the most guns stopped in 2022 – 448 – but the number is actually down from a year ago Was. Robert Spinden, the TSA’s top official in Atlanta, says the agency and the airport will launch a major effort in 2021 to try to address the large number of guns being stopped at the checkpoints.
An incident in November 2021 emphasized the need for their efforts. A TSA officer noticed a suspicious gun in a passenger’s bag. When the officer opened the suitcase the man reached for the gun, and it was gone. The airport’s general manager, Balram Bhodri, told a Congressional hearing last year that people rushed to the exits and the airport was closed for two-and-a-half hours.
Officials put up new signage to attract the attention of gun owners. A hologram above a post shows an image of a rotating blue gun with a red circle above the gun with a line through it. Several 70-inch television screens flash rotating messages that guns are not allowed.
“There is signage all over the airport. There are announcements, holograms, TVs. There is a lot of information flashing in front of your eyes to try to remind you as a last ditch effort that if you have a firearm Do you know where it is?’ said Spinden.
Miami’s airport also served to attract the attention of the gunmen. The airport director told Congress last year that he would install high-visibility signs and work with airlines to warn passengers after setting a gun interception record in 2021. There has been a sharp decline in the number of firearms, he said.
Pekoske said signage is only part of the solution. Travelers are faced with a deluge of signs or announcements and they don’t always pay attention. He also favors gradually increasing the penalties to attract public attention.
But Aidan Johnson of the gun advocacy group Gun Owners of America said he would like to see the fines reduced, adding that they are not a deterrent. While he would like to see more education for new gun owners, he also does not consider it a “major heinous crime.”
“These are not bad people who are in dire need of punishment,” he said. “These are the people who made a mistake.”
Authorities believe they are catching the vast majority, but even a modest percentage is a concern, with 730 million travelers screened last year.
Last month, musician Cliff Waddell was traveling from Nashville, Tennessee, to Raleigh, North Carolina, when he was stopped at a checkpoint. A TSA officer noticed a gun in his bag. Waddell was so surprised that he initially said it couldn’t be her because he had flown in with the same bag the day before. It turned out that the gun was in his bag but missed the screening. TSA acknowledged the lapse, and Pekoske says they are investigating.
When trying to figure out how the gun he keeps tucked away in his glove compartment ended up in his bookbag, Waddell realized he took it out when he took the vehicle in for repairs. took. Waddell said he considers it his responsibility to know where his gun is but is concerned about how the TSA could miss something so important.
He said, ‘It was a shock to me.