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TSA Confirms Another Record Year for Firearm Detections and Increases Penalties

New gun laws may have also contributed to the rising tally. “Since the implementation of new gun laws in the state last year, we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of firearms brought to Tennessee security checkpoints,” said Kevin McCarthy, TSA Deputy Federal Security Director for Tennessee.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has confirmed what many reading this would have suspected – that officers intercepted a record number of firearms brought by passengers to airport security checkpoints in 2022. 

As of December 16, TSA has stopped 6,301 firearms; more than 88% were loaded. This number surpasses the previous record of 5,972 firearms detected in 2021. TSA anticipates it will prevent about 6,600 firearms in carry-on bags from entering the secure area of airports by the end of 2022, a nearly 10% increase over 2021’s record level.

The state of Florida is one regional example where passengers have brought a record number of guns to TSA checkpoints. The year-to-date number of 793 guns is already 19 percent higher than in any previous year and includes records set at 14 individual airports, such as the 151 guns intercepted at Orlando International Airport. Nearly every one of these guns was loaded and most had ammunition chambered. Many of the passengers were arrested or issued notices to appear in court.

New England has also seen an increase in the number of guns at airport checkpoints. TSA officers at Boston Logan for example have now detected 28 firearms this year, eight more than the previous record of 20 in 2018. This included two firearms within 24 hours on December 8 and 9.

As well as the obvious threat of a hijacker from boarding a plane with a firearm, loaded firearms present myriad dangers. In cases of unruly passengers, someone could get hold of another traveler’s bag and gun with catastrophic consequences. The public and transportation personnel can also be put at risk during routine screening when a loaded firearm is brought to the checkpoint, potentially resulting in accidental discharge. Then there’s the inconvenience to travelers and costs to airlines of delays to boarding due to firearms being found in carry-on bags. 

Why is the number of firearms brought to airport checkpoints increasing? There is no single answer. First, new gun owners may not be fully aware of the rules for traveling with firearms and ammunition. There is also the pandemic effect with more people traveling by air than during the height of the pandemic. As people return to the airports, many use the same bags they had thrown in the trunk of the car without checking what was in them before adding more items for their trip. New gun laws may have also contributed to the rising tally. “Since the implementation of new gun laws in the state last year, we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of firearms brought to Tennessee security checkpoints,” said Kevin McCarthy, TSA Deputy Federal Security Director for Tennessee. “Our officers detect firearms at a rate three and a half times greater than the national average.”

We recently reported on the ‘epidemic’ of guns at TSA checkpoints and asked what could be done about it. For example, Former Federal Security Director at Los Angeles International Airport and now Vice President of K2 Security Screening Group, Keith Jeffries, suggested that state legislators could pass a law to have offenders lose their concealed weapons permit. Jeffries acknowledged that a lot depends on will and collective agreement. “It all depends on people agreeing, and it depends on the urgency to get it passed. Gun ownership and the ‘right to carry’ is a political hot button and everyone has an opinion.”

Alongside its announcement regarding the record number of guns detected this year, TSA said it has increased the maximum civil penalty for a firearms violation to $14,950. TSA will also continue to revoke TSA PreCheck® eligibility for at least five years for passengers caught with a firearm in their possession. TSA may conduct enhanced screening for those passengers to ensure no other threats are present. Depending on state or local law in the airport’s location, passengers who bring firearms to a checkpoint may be arrested by law enforcement.

We spoke with Keith again following TSA’s end of year announcement. “Firearm purchases in the United States have been on the rise since the COVID pandemic began. This trend, combined with an increase in the number of first-time gun owners, has resulted in more firearms being discovered at TSA checkpoints,” Keith said. “Clear and constant communication with gun owners, stiffer penalties, and tougher legislation may help reduce the number of firearms being detected at checkpoints.”

Only time will tell if the civil penalty increase and PreCheck revocation will be sufficient to deter travelers from arriving at the checkpoint with guns, or whether additional measures will be needed.

“Stiffer penalties will help,” Keith told us. “However, the revocation of TSA PreCheck eligibility for five years will certainly get the attention of gun owners who travel at least a couple times a year.”

Keith says TSA’s response is a “very good, measured response” and that communication will be key. “TSA’s communication strategy is going to play a very significant role in making sure the flying public is aware of the most recent changes. In addition, communication from law enforcement agencies, airports and airlines to the traveling public are extremely important.”

Ultimately, Keith said there is still a need for tougher legislation to address the problem.

One thing is for sure, TSA officers have proved time and time again that they are ever-vigilant to the threats posed by firearms on flights.

“I applaud the work of our Transportation Security Officers who do an excellent job of preventing firearms from getting into the secure area of airports, and onboard aircraft,” said TSA Administrator David Pekoske. “Firearms are prohibited in carry-on bags at the checkpoint and onboard aircraft. When a passenger brings a firearm to the checkpoint, this consumes significant security resources and poses a potential threat to transportation security, in addition to being very costly for the passenger.”

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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