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Record Firearm Detections for TSA Checkpoints Across the United States in 2021

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers found 5,972 firearms at 268 different airports in 2021. Some 86% of these guns were loaded.

This was a huge increase over 2020’s 3,257 firearms detected at 104 airports. In 2021, TSA screened approximately 585 million passengers and crew at airports nationwide. That figure represents a 44% increase over the 339 million screened in 2020. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit travel numbers, the number of firearms caught at TSA checkpoints was lower than that recorded last year – 4,432 in 2019 and 4,239 in 2018. 

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport topped the list with 507 firearm finds, the most ever recorded at any airport since the inception of TSA. Dallas Fort Worth International Airport came in second with 317 followed by Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport with 245; Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport with 196; and Nashville International Airport with 163.

Even though passenger numbers have not yet fully returned to pre-pandemic levels, several airports set their own records for the highest number of firearm detections at TSA checkpoints. Denver International Airport discovered 141 firearms in travelers’ carry-on luggage in 2021, setting a new record at its three security checkpoints. 

Nationwide, a firearm was detected for every 97,999 passengers screened. But in Tennessee, the rate was more than 2.5 times higher than the national rate with one firearm discovered for every 37,799 passengers screened. TSA officers at Tennessee airports discovered a total of 283 firearms in travelers’ carry-on luggage in 2021. Nashville International Airport broke a statewide record with 163 guns found, a total higher than the sum of all Tennessee airports combined in 2020. 

In Georgia, the rate was also more than double the national rate—with one firearm discovered for every 40,570 passengers screened. TSA officers at Georgia airports discovered a total of 542 firearms in travelers’ carry-on luggage in 2021, with the bulk of these at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

In Virginia, TSA officers stopped 98 handguns at the region’s airport security checkpoints in 2021, a new record and a huge jump from the 55 guns caught in 2020. TSA officers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport detected 30 guns in 2021, three times as many handguns compared to 2020 when 10 were caught.  The TSA team at Washington Dulles International Airport also saw a huge spike in the number of guns caught in 2021 when 19 were detected compared to only seven in 2020. Norfolk International Airport also saw nearly double the number of guns detected in 2021 when 23 were caught compared to 12 that were stopped at checkpoints in 2020.

Passengers bringing guns to TSA checkpoints also reached record levels across Louisiana in 2021 with Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport coming in ninth in the country. TSA officers at the airport intercepted 119 guns. Across the state 162 passengers brought guns to the checkpoints compared to 85 in 2020 and 91 in 2019.  In addition to the 119 at Louis Armstrong New Orleans, TSA officers stopped 17 guns at Shreveport Regional, seven at Lafayette Regional, six at Baton Rouge Metropolitan, five at Alexandria International, four at Lake Charles Regional and four at Monroe Regional Airport. 

TSA officers set a record for the number of guns detected at Pennsylvania airport security checkpoints last year. They stopped 89 handguns at Pennsylvania airport security checkpoints in 2021, a sharp increase from the 57 guns detected in 2020 and a spike from the 71 caught in 2019. The largest increase in guns brought to checkpoints took place at Philadelphia and Pittsburgh International Airports. Thirty-nine guns were caught at Philadelphia last year, which set a new record for the number caught at the airport. At Pittsburgh, TSA officers caught 32 firearms at security checkpoints. Increases in gun detections at security checkpoints also took place at Arnold Palmer Regional, Lehigh Valley International and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International airports.

Passengers bringing guns to TSA checkpoints also reached record levels across Florida in 2021. A total of 666 guns were intercepted by TSA across the state, a 26 percent increase from the highest previous totals of 529 and 528 in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (128) and Orlando International Airport (124) were in the top 10 in the country for this dangerous violation of federal regulations. Both airports set records as did many other airports across the state. At Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport the 128 guns compares to a previous record of 100 in 2019.  The total at Orlando of 124 is one more than the record of 123 in 2018. The third highest in the state was at Tampa International Airport where TSA officers intercepted 105 guns, four of those guns in one day back in May, and exceeded a record previously set with 97 guns in 2017. A record also was set at Miami International with 80 guns stopped in 2021, where the previous record had been 60 in 2020. Pensacola International Airport, Southwest Florida International Airport and Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport all set records in 2021 as well.

TSA officers at North Carolina airports discovered a total of 254 firearms in travelers’ carry-on luggage in 2021, with several airports across the state doubling or tripling their 2020 totals. 

Missouri airports discovered a total of 183 firearms in travelers’ carry-on luggage in 2021. TSA at St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL) broke a statewide record with 102 guns found, a total higher than the sum of all Missouri airports combined in 2020.

TSA officers stopped 91 handguns at Chicago O’Hare International Airport security checkpoints in 2021, and 42 at Chicago Midway International Airport, a notable increase over the totals in both 2020 and 2019.

Nine handguns were caught at West Virginia airport security checkpoints in 2021, one more than the eight detected in 2020.

Upstate New York airport security checkpoints saw TSA officers stop 19 handguns in 2021, an increase from the 13 caught in 2020.

South Carolina airports discovered a total of 72 firearms in travelers’ carry-on luggage in 2021, a new annual record for the state.

Kentucky airports discovered a total of 119 firearms in travelers’ carry-on luggage in 2021, more than double the number found in 2020. 

TSA officers stopped 23 handguns at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport security checkpoints in 2021, a notable increase from the 16 guns caught in 2019. 35 firearms were detected at airports across Wisconsin.

In Indiana, TSA officers stopped 74 handguns at Indianapolis International Airport security checkpoints in 2021, a notable increase over the 62 detected in 2019. Statewide TSA stopped almost 100 firearms from being carried onto a flight.

94 handguns were stopped by TSA at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport security checkpoints in 2021, a notable increase over the 47 detected in 2019. Michigan also saw high numbers of firearm detections at Gerald R. Ford, Flint Bishop and Cherry Capital airports.

TSA officers at Salt Lake City International Airport discovered 115 firearms in travelers’ carry-on luggage in 2021, easily surpassing prior years’ totals for firearm finds at 

There was also an increase in detections at Ohio airports where TSA officers stopped 43 handguns at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport security checkpoints in 2021, a notable increase over the 26 detected in 2019. A total of 89 firearms, most of which were loaded, were found by TSA officers at Ohio airport checkpoints last year.

A total of 40 firearms were detected at seven New England airports in 2021. TSA detected five more firearms in 2021 at New England Airports than it did in 2019, despite screening 13.3 million fewer passengers. Burlington International and T.F. Green Airport were the only two New England airports that saw declines from 2019 detections. 

A few other airports narrowly bucked the trend. TSA officers stopped 26 handguns at New York City area airport checkpoints in 2021, an increase from the 17 guns caught in 2020 but one less than in 2019.

It is worth noting that gun sales soared in 2020. The rise was largely fueled by first-time gun owners including women and politically liberal buyers who have not previously considered gun ownership. As first-time gun owners, it is highly conceivable that they would not have been fully aware of the correct way to travel with their firearm when they made they first journeys as gun owners.

Many people also swapped traveling by air to personal car travel during the pandemic so had often turned up to the checkpoint with a bag packed previously for personal car travel, which still had some items from their earlier trip at the bottom of the bag or in side pockets.

So what is the correct way to travel with a firearm? Airline passengers can fly with firearms in checked baggage if the firearms are properly packed and declared at check-in. However, firearm possession laws vary by state and locality. TSA advises travelers to familiarize themselves with state and local firearm laws for each point of travel prior to departure to ensure they transport guns in accordance with applicable laws. Airlines may have additional requirements for traveling with firearms and ammunition, so travelers should also contact the airline regarding firearm and ammunition carriage policies prior to arriving at the airport.

In some cities, local law enforcement may file criminal charges against travelers who bring firearms to the TSA checkpoint. TSA will assess civil penalties that vary by number of previous offenses and whether the firearm was loaded at the time. The complete list of penalties is posted on TSA.gov. Firearms are not permitted in the passenger cabin of an airplane; this includes travelers with a concealed weapon permit.

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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