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Friday, December 1, 2023

TSA Set to Surpass Firearms Detection Record as More Than 5,000 Stopped Already This Year

Many expected the stricter penalties, introduced by TSA in December, to have some impact, but it appears not to have been the case.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) stopped over 1,800 firearms at airport checkpoints nationwide during the third quarter of 2023.

This means that so far this year, TSA has intercepted 5,072 firearms at airport security checkpoints, and at the current rate, the agency will surpass last year’s record 6,542 firearms prevented from getting onboard aircraft.

The third quarter total of 1,820 firearms represents an average 19.8 firearms per day at TSA checkpoints of which more than 94% were loaded.

Several airports are recording multiple gun catches in one week or even on the same day. On October 2 for example, TSA officers stopped a male traveler at Boise Airport at 5 a.m. when they detected a loaded handgun among the man’s belongings. The 9 mm Smith & Wesson pistol was loaded with nine bullets. TSA officers then discovered a second firearm around 8:40 a.m. when a male traveler brought an unloaded Raven Arms MP25 Pistol in his carry-on bag along with a box of ammunition in his carry-on luggage. Both firearms were discovered during routine X-ray screening at the security checkpoint. 31 firearms have been detected at Boise checkpoints so far this year. All but two of these have been loaded. Last year the airport reached a record number of 34 gun detections.

Meanwhile, during the last week of September, TSA officers at Pittsburgh International Airport detected three loaded firearms. A Georgia man with a 9mm handgun was stopped at the security checkpoint on September 29. The handgun was loaded with six bullets. This catch followed the detection of a loaded gun on September 26, and a revolver that was removed from a traveler’s carry-on bag on September 24. 33 firearms have been caught by TSA at the airport so far this year, two away from the record number in 2019.

“We are on the cusp of setting a new all-time high in the number of guns our team has detected at checkpoints here in Pittsburgh during a single year and we still have three full months left in 2023,” said Karen Keys-Turner, TSA’s Federal Security Director for the airport. “This is not the type of record that we are looking to set. We would much rather see fewer travelers showing up at the checkpoint with their guns.”

A new record was set at John Glenn Columbus International Airport on October 3 as TSA officers discovered a loaded firearm in a passenger’s carry-on bag, bringing the total detected at the airport to 41 this year. The previous annual record was 40 firearms, set last year. In addition to the firearm stopped Tuesday around 8:30 a.m., officers detected firearms in other incidents on Friday, Sept. 29; Thursday, Sept. 28; and Monday, Sept. 25. All four of the firearms were loaded. In all cases, the Columbus Regional Airport Authority police were alerted, responded to the checkpoint, and confiscated the weapon.

“It’s troubling that we’ve set an all-time record for firearms stopped at the checkpoint with three months still left in the year,” Ohio TSA Federal Security Director Don Barker said. “In addition to the serious safety risk these incidents pose, they also slow down the screening process for all passengers when we’re forced to temporarily close down a lane. I urge passengers to think twice before they leave the house about what they’re bringing in their carry-on bags.”

Airports Council International World recently published its latest quarterly air travel outlook revealing global passenger traffic is expected to reach 9.4 billion passengers in 2024, surpassing that of 2019 and marking a milestone in pandemic recovery. As more and more passengers return to the skies, TSA is facing a challenge in getting travelers to arrive at the checkpoint without ‘forgotten’ firearms. But is the uptick in passengers the sole reason for the increase in the number of firearms being detected, despite tougher penalties? Gerry Phelan, Federal Security Director at George Bush Intercontinental Airport until joining K2 Security Screening Group in May as Senior Director of Capability Delivery, thinks not.

“A jump in passenger volumes will have an impact on the number of firearms discovered at checkpoints but not enough to account for the new record,” Phelan told Homeland Security Today. “There is however a direct correlation between the number of new gun owners compared to previous years.”

“Firearm purchases in the United States have been on the rise since the COVID pandemic began,” Keith Jeffries, former Federal Security Director at Los Angeles International Airport and now Vice President of K2 Security Screening Group, said. “This trend, combined with an increase in the number of first-time gun owners, has resulted in more firearms being discovered at TSA checkpoints.” 

Indeed, gun sales soared to unprecedented levels in 2020, exceeding the previous year by nearly 64%, according to Small Arms Analytics and Forecasting. As Phelan and Jeffries point out, the rise was largely fueled by first-time gun owners including women and politically liberal buyers who have not previously considered gun ownership. 

New purchases have been driven by a number of factors resulting in a heightened sense of fear and need to protect, sparked by the global pandemic as well as sometimes violent protests across the country, including the attack on the Capitol in January 2021. In 2022, gun sales fell but at 16.2 million firearms sold, the annual totals are still above pre-pandemic figures.

As first-time gun owners, it is highly conceivable that many would not have been fully aware of the correct way to travel with their firearm when they made their first journeys as gun owners.

“Traveling can be stressful for many passengers and people make mistakes,” Phelan said. “But forgetting where your loaded firearm is located is inexcusable.”

Jeffries agrees. “The carelessness of gun owners is the most significant contributing factor behind the increase in firearms discovered at airport security checkpoints.”

TSA recommends that passengers start with an empty carry-on bag when packing to ensure no firearms are unintentionally left in their travel bag.

If a passenger brings a firearm to the TSA checkpoint, the TSA officer, also known as Transportation Security Officers (TSO), will contact local law enforcement to safely unload and take possession of the firearm. The law enforcement officer may also arrest or cite the passenger, depending on local law. TSA may impose a civil penalty up to almost $15,000, and passengers who present with a firearm at a security checkpoint will lose TSA PreCheck eligibility for five years.  

Many expected these stricter penalties, introduced by TSA in December, to have some impact, but it appears not to have been the case. Is there a problem with enforcement?

“The most recent increase in civil penalties is being enforced,” Jeffries told us. “However, with the record number of firearms still being brought to security checkpoints, these penalties have obviously not produced the desired outcome. Lawmakers, the airlines, and TSA must work together to reach a sustainable solution.”

TSA Administrator David Pekoske reminds passengers about the correct way to travel with a firearm:

“Passengers may travel with a firearm, but it must be in their checked baggage,” said Pekoske. “Firearms are only permitted in checked baggage, unloaded in a locked hard-sided case and must be declared to the airline when checking the bag at the ticket counter. Firearms are prohibited at security checkpoints, in the secure area of an airport or in the passenger cabin of an aircraft even if a passenger has a concealed carry permit or is in a constitutional carry jurisdiction.”  

Kylie Bielby
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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