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Sunday, December 3, 2023

TSA’s Firearm Epidemic and What To Do About It

Former Federal Security Director at Los Angeles International Airport and now Vice President of K2 Security Screening Group, Keith Jeffries, suggests additional ways that could help reduce the number of firearms being brought to airport checkpoints. “State legislators could pass a law to have offenders lose their concealed weapons permit,” Keith said.

Homeland Security Today regularly reports on Transportation Security Administration (TSA) firearm detections when travelers arrive at the checkpoint with their (mostly loaded) guns. 

Last year, TSA intercepted nearly 6,000 firearms at checkpoints, which represented the highest rate in the agency’s 19 year history. In 2022, more and more individual airports are seeing their firearm detection rates break previous records. Passengers across the state of Florida for example have brought 700 guns to airport checkpoints in 2022, which is already more than in any previous year and includes records set at 12 individual airports.

“An accidental discharge could result in tragedy,” said TSA spokesperson Sari Koshetz.  “Every passenger bears the responsibility of knowing exactly where their gun is before entering the security checkpoint.” Many of the passengers bringing guns to Florida airport checkpoints were arrested or issued notices to appear in court. Koshetz advises: “Don’t let bringing a gun to a federal checkpoint be the reason you cannot answer ‘no’ to the question often asked on job applications: have you ever been arrested?”

The total of firearms stopped at checkpoints at Nashville International Airport this year is a record 170. The previous record was 163 firearms, set in 2021. TSA Federal Security Director for Tennessee, Steve Wood, said the airport has seen a significant increase since the implementation of new gun laws in the state last year. “Passengers must remember they’re responsible for the contents of bags and our advice is they thoroughly inspect all personal belongings to make sure there are no illegal or prohibited items before coming to the airport,” Wood said.

New gun laws may have also contributed to the record number of 68 firearms stopped at Memphis International Airport TSA checkpoints so far this year.  “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. “While the actual number of firearms discovered at Memphis checkpoints doesn’t compare to the numbers seen at some of the larger airports in the country, on a per passenger basis, our officers detect firearms at a rate three and a half times greater than the national average.”

As of the end of October, TSA officers at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport had detected 28 firearms at the airport’s security checkpoints so far this year, surpassing the previous record of 27 caught in 2019—all with two more months remaining in the year.

“There seems to be a sudden epidemic of guns that travelers are bringing to our security checkpoints,” said Christopher Murgia, TSA’s Federal Security Director for Maryland. “I don’t know exactly why this is happening, but what I do know is that it needs to stop.”

This record-breaking trend has already been reported by numerous airports with many more likely to join this unwanted list by the year’s end.

“I forgot”

The most common excuse given by travelers is that they claim that they forgot that they had their loaded guns with them. Homeland Security Today spoke with aviation security experts and former TSA officials to glean a better understanding and to try to find a solution to this epidemic. Everyone we spoke with was in firm agreement on the need to reduce the number of guns at checkpoints and that a basic responsibility of gun ownership is knowing where your gun is at.

“It is very frustrating to see the numbers per passenger continuing to rise,” said Former Deputy Administrator of the TSA and now Partner at Guidehouse, Patricia Cogswell. 

Patricia said travelers should already be aware before arriving at the checkpoint. “Travelers are used to having to answer airline questions and confirm that they are not carrying anything hazardous, including weapons. Unfortunately, I suspect many people just confirm at this point when they do their online check-in, but then don’t take the right follow up actions. Back in the days when people had to see someone to get a boarding pass at their airport, they received that warning and verbally replied, giving them a last chance before they went to the TSA checkpoint. But most people now check in via the airline apps well before arrival at the airport.”

Patricia spoke of the significant uptick in the number of weapons per passenger relatively early in the pandemic. “Since that time, TSA has undertaken a number of efforts at the national and airport specific level. TSA updated messaging on its webpage, and TSA worked with those airports with higher rates to increase signage reminding passengers of firearm carriage requirements. TSA also started increasing fines, particularly for repeat offenders – although repeats are relatively rare. There’s a lot that TSA is doing already, but the biggest ask, I think, is to keep this in people’s front of mind.”

Which is not easy to do, even with lots of signage. “We’ve found that signage in airports is often not read,” Patricia said. “Given the stress of travel, we’ve seen that people will pass three or four signs about something and still ask questions covered by the signs.”

Potential solutions

Former Federal Security Director at Los Angeles International Airport and now Vice President of K2 Security Screening Group, Keith Jeffries, suggests additional ways that could help reduce the number of firearms being brought to airport checkpoints.

“State legislators could pass a law to have offenders lose their concealed weapons permit,” Keith said. State law varies slightly from state to state but violations that warrant a revocation of a concealed weapons permit are similar. For example, violation for Driving Under the Influence (DUI) warrants removal of a concealed weapons permit in most states. At a federal level, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms can issue a notice for revocation of a concealed weapons permit for a number of reasons such as falsifying records or failing to respond to a trace request.

Keith 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.”

It has sometimes been suggested that law enforcement officers don’t always take as hard a line with people who bring guns to the checkpoint as TSA might like them to. Adding the action to the reasons to revoke a concealed weapons permit would however compel law enforcement to act as they would be obligated to enforce the law.

Keith also suggests that local airport law enforcement officers could team with TSA on public service announcements to cover the potential penalties for bringing a firearm to the airport. Such penalties currently include the suspension or loss of TSA PreCheck benefits. Keith pointed out that a large percentage of the passengers that say they forgot their firearm was in their carry-on luggage are TSA PreCheck members. Additionally, a large percentage of those same PreCheck passengers are concealed carry permit holders of their prospective state.

There’s also something travelers could do right now, without waiting for legislation to pass or public information campaigns to be created. “There are some tracking technologies available that would send you an alarm/notification when your firearm leaves your home,” Keith suggested. A potential solution that could be useful and even life-saving in other eventualities too. Steve Karoly, Executive Vice President at K2 Security Screening Group and former Acting Assistant Administrator for the TSA Office of Requirements and Capabilities Analysis agrees. “The technology exists, using GPS tracking mechanisms, and seems to be fairly inexpensive especially when compared to the fines that a firearm owner could incur due to their ‘mistake’,” Steve added.

It is worth noting that a bill has been introduced that aims to reduce the number of firearms at TSA checkpoints via a range of activities to inform the public about restrictions regarding the carrying of firearms in sterile areas of airports and to strengthen enforcement of such restrictions.

Introduced in March by Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, Chair of the Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security, the Securing Air Travel Act has not yet passed the House. If signed into law, it would establish minimum civil penalties for repeat or egregious violations and restrict PreCheck eligibility for those individuals. The bill would also require airports to display prominent signage, strengthen TSA’s efforts to inform the public of potential consequences, and provide Congress with regular reports on the implementation of the legislation.

TSA vigilance

Not every firearm at the checkpoints is a case of forgetfulness. A man was denied boarding his flight on July 27 after TSA officers at Newark Liberty International Airport detected numerous firearm parts that had been artfully concealed in one of the man’s checked bags. The firearm parts were detected after the man’s checked bag alarmed as it was going through the screening process. The baggage was flagged for a hand search and the TSA officer who was searching the bag came across a box labeled as ankle and wrist weights. The gun parts were concealed inside the weights. On September 3, a loaded revolver was found by TSA officers, again at Newark Liberty. In this case, the .38 caliber revolver loaded with five bullets was detected when the TSA officer who was staffing a checkpoint X-ray monitor in Terminal B spotted the weapon inside the woman’s carry-on bag. When the bag was searched, the gun was found to be artfully concealed behind the lining of her bag. Inconceivably, both passengers said they did not know the firearm was in their bag. And perhaps the most extreme example this year comes from the TSA team at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport who found a firearm stuffed into a ready-to-bake holiday hen. We have not heard whether the passenger forgot that they had left a firearm in their raw chicken…

Reversing the trend with a collective effort

A TSA spokesperson told us that officers are exhibiting their skills in catching, intercepting – with law enforcement assistance – and preventing firearms from entering the secure area of airports and in the passenger cabins of commercial airplanes. “TSA seeks to remind passengers that firearms are prohibited in the passenger cabins of commercial aircraft and that presenting for security screening with a firearm is an expensive and time-consuming mistake,” the spokesperson said.

TSA and airport officials want travelers to know that firearms can be transported on a commercial aircraft only if they are unloaded, packed in a locked, hard-sided case and placed in checked baggage. Ammunition should be placed in its original packaging. Any type of replica firearm or firearm parts are also prohibited in carry-on baggage and must be transported in checked luggage. 

At the airport during the check-in process, a passenger needs to go to the airline ticket counter to declare the firearm, ammunition and any firearm parts. Prior to traveling, passengers are encouraged to check gun laws and regulations at their destination to ensure they are in compliance with local and state laws. TSA also recommends travelers check with their airline prior to their flight to ensure they comply with any airline-specific requirements.

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, for example, 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. 

A collective effort is needed to reduce this risk to TSA officers and the traveling public, both at a political level and a public level. America has shown many times before that it can do great things when everyone is working together for the same goal. Let us hope that this is another one of those times and that we will one day be able to report a reduction in the number of firearms at airport checkpoints across the United States.

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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