Darby Lajoye, the Transportation Security Administration assistant administrator for the Office of Security Operations, speaks at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Centers of Excellence Summit at George Mason University in Arlington on May 30, 2018. (James Cullum/HS Today)

More Guns Being Found in More Densely Packed Bags as Summer Travel Heats Up

It might seem silly to pack a loaded handgun in your luggage or carry-on, but the Transportation Security Administration finds them every day. The volume of summer travelers is expected to break records, and with passengers increasingly opting for carry-ons to forego the expense of their checking bags, the TSA has increased checkpoint staff by 600 officers and added 50 canine screening teams.

“Every single day it’s not unusual at all — a couple dozen guns loaded a day,” said Darby LaJoye, the TSA assistant administrator for the Office of Security Operations. “But every single day we find dangerous items, we find flammable items, we find hazardous items… I can guarantee right now at some checkpoint or some baggage room they’re pulling something out a bag.”

TSA found a record number of firearms detected at checkpoints nationwide in 2017: 3,957 guns, or about 10 a day, a 17 percent increase over 2016. On May 31, a man from Leesburg, Va., was cited at Washington Dulles International Airport for carrying a .40 caliber semi-automatic handgun loaded with 10 bullets — the sixth gun that the TSA has found at Dulles this year. That same day, a .380 caliber Ruger with six bullets was found at Albuquerque International Sunport — the 16th confiscated firearm of the year. The civil penalty for bringing a weapon to a checkpoint is up to $13,000.

TSA, which screens more than 750 million people annually, expects 243 million passengers and crew to pass through security checkpoints between Memorial Day and Labor Day — up from 239 million passengers last year. The agency is responsible for securing 2,800 international and 23,000 domestic flights, screening 2 million passengers, 4.9 million carry-ons and 1.3 million checked bags every day.

LaJoye, who spoke at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Centers of Excellence Summit at George Mason University in Arlington last week, said that more passengers are carrying their bags through checkpoints. He also said that the hands-on efficiency of the recent rollout of “enhanced manual property searches” coupled with new 3-D computerized axial tomography (CT) scanners being piloted at airports around the country are making lines move faster.

“Something that we are realizing… is the bags themselves are stuffed more. So, yeah, there’s much more of them and they’re much more dense,” LaJoye said. “The longer it takes you to pack your bag, the longer it’s going to take the officer to repack your bag.”

More than 93,000 passengers and crew were screened at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport over Memorial Day weekend, breaking the single-day record for screened passengers. Ninety-one percent waited less than 20 minutes in screening lines. But 98.5 percent of passengers who are members of the TSA Pre✓® program waited less than 10 minutes in line. Those passengers pay $85 to breeze through the checkpoint, and in order to qualify sat through a 10-minute in-person interview, underwent a background check and turned over their fingerprints.

TSA is in various stages of piloting individual technologies, and LaJoye envisions a security system that automatically assesses the threat level of a traveler as soon as their identification is scanned through the checkpoint.

“As you’re approaching the checkpoint, we know your ID is read… we know your own level of risk, and then the technology, as you’re walking through, is adjusting automatically without the officer knowing really what’s happening behind the scenes,” he said. “It’s really kind of what you see in use in other places around the world. We’ve seen some very cool stuff — the use of CTTV (cameras). That’s kind of where I think, naturally, the checkpoint is going to. In a very dynamic way it’s adjusting according to the relative risk of every passenger going through the checkpoint.”

Multimedia journalist James Cullum has reported for over a decade to newspapers, magazines and websites in the D.C. metro area. He excels at finding order in chaotic environments, from slave liberations in South Sudan to the halls of the power in Washington, D.C.

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