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Monday, December 11, 2023

TSA’s Firearm Detection Rate Doubled in 2020 – But Why?

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers detected twice as many firearms per million passengers screened at airport security checkpoints nationwide in 2020 compared to 2019, and at a significantly higher rate than any other year since the agency’s inception. Throughout 2020, TSA caught approximately 10 firearms per million passengers screened as compared to about 5 firearms per million passengers screened in 2019. 

TSA officers discovered a total of 3,257 firearms on passengers or in their carry-on bags at checkpoints, although total passengers screened in 2020 fell by 500 million versus 2019 due to the pandemic. Of those firearms caught in 2020, about 83 percent were loaded. In 2019, TSA officers stopped a record 4,432 firearms, of which 87 percent were loaded.

“I commend our officers for their commitment to TSA’s security mission by identifying and stopping these weapons at the TSA checkpoints. Firearms are strictly prohibited onboard planes in the passenger cabin,” said Senior Official Performing the Duties of TSA Administrator Darby LaJoye. “Bringing a firearm to a TSA security checkpoint poses a serious risk to TSA officer and passenger safety, and doing so may result in significant fines or arrest.”

Passengers with firearms at checkpoints were stopped at 234 airports nationwide. The top ten airports where TSA officers detected guns at checkpoints in 2020 were:

1 Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) 220
2 Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) 176
3 Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) 126
4 Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) 124
5 Denver International Airport (DEN) 104
6 Nashville International Airport (BNA) 94
7 Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) 87
8 Orlando International Airport (MCO) 79
9 Las Vegas McCarran International Airport (LAS) 72
10 Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) 71


Back in May 2020, when TSA’s higher firearm detection rate first became known, data analyst and risk assessment expert, Sheldon H. Jacobson offered our readers some explanations as to why TSA was finding more guns despite air traveler numbers being low due to the pandemic.

“Comparing 2019 and 2020 air travelers is like comparing apples and oranges; they are both fruit, but the similarities end there. The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced air travel by more than 90%. Assuming the same mix of travelers in 2019 are traveling today is unrealistic. Groups that are likely not traveling today include seniors, families with small children, and vacationers. This demographic were unlikely to bring firearms to airport security checkpoints in 2019, and are not traveling at all in 2020. Removing such travelers from the 2019 firearms detection rate would result in a higher 2019 detection rate amongst likely travelers in 2020.”

Jacobson also noted that previous probes by red teams have found that TSA officers sometimes miss weapons concealed in passenger belongings, with fatigue and distraction being the likely cause of such errors.

“Screening as many as 150 items per hour places significant strain on screeners, resulting in items missed. It is unlikely that the 4,432 firearms detected by TSA screeners in 2019 were the only firearms carried to airport security checkpoints. It is reasonable to say that an unknown percentage of firearms passed undetected.”

Given that the number of screenings dropped considerably in 2020, there are fewer distractions and less fatigue, resulting in higher firearm detection capabilities and performance.

In addition, 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.

Add to that the fact that many people 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. This trend prompted TSA to tell travelers to unpack before they packed for a trip.

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.

Where local firearm possession laws permit, passengers may travel with firearms in checked baggage if they are unloaded and packed in a locked hard-sided case. Ammunition must be in its original box and can be packed inside the hard-side case, next to the firearm. Even if the box of ammunition is not full, the bullets must be in their original case. The passenger must present the case with the firearm at the airline check-in counter and inform the airline representative of their intention to travel with the gun. Firearms are transported with checked baggage and are placed in the cargo hold of the aircraft.

Data collected represents the number of firearms caught on passengers and in their carry-on bags at the nation’s TSA checkpoints. Excluded from the data are improperly packed guns at checked baggage stations, toys, replicas and BB guns. 

Find out how to properly travel with a firearm at TSA

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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