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TSA Asked to Explain Plans to Address the Rise of Firearms at Checkpoints

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, and Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security, have sent a letter to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) inquiring about its plan to address the dangerous and alarming rise of individuals bringing firearms to airport checkpoints. 

The letter, addressed to Administrator David Pekoske, comes after a Member of Congress, Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), was caught by TSA bringing a gun to a Charlotte Douglas International Airport checkpoint. On April 26, TSA officers discovered a 9 mm handgun in Cawthorn’s bag and contacted Charlotte-Mecklenburg police who confiscated the firearm and cited Cawthorn for possession of a dangerous weapon on city property.

Responding to the incident, Cawthorn posted on his Instagram, saying “Even if you fly all the time, and are used to just grabbing your bags and going, always take the extra 30-60 seconds it takes to check your bags and make sure everything is how it should be. I made a mistake yesterday, no excuse for it, just a flat out mistake.”

This is the second time Cawthorn has made such a mistake after TSA officers found a handgun in his carry-on bag at Asheville Regional Airport in February 2021. 

As we have previously reported on several occasions, TSA is encountering guns at checkpoints – most of them loaded – at an increasing rate. The rate of weapons stopped in 2021 was almost double that of 2019. Aside from the high profile case of Cawthorn, TSA has stopped numerous guns at airports around the country this April alone, with some checkpoints seeing multiple offenses in the same week or even the same day.

On April 27, for example, a man became the second traveler caught with a loaded gun in his carry-on bag in a week at Philadelphia International Airport when TSA officers stopped him with his .357 caliber gun loaded with five bullets. Two days earlier, a Wilmington, Del., resident was caught with a .22 caliber handgun that was also loaded with five bullets. TSA says the incidents were not related.

On April 24, TSA officers at Washington Dulles International Airport prevented two travelers from carrying their handguns onto their flights. A Great Falls, Va., man was caught with an unloaded .32 caliber handgun in his carry-on bag and a Leesburg, Va., man was stopped with a 9 mm handgun loaded with 15 bullets in his carry-on bag. In each instance, the travelers claimed they forgot that they were carrying their weapons. Again, the two incidents were not related.  

In their letter, Chairs Thompson and Coleman urge TSA to do more and act decisively to ensure repeat offenders – who place their fellow travelers at risk on multiple occasions – face the full extent of TSA’s enforcement actions. 

Currently, there is bipartisan legislation pending in the House, the Securing Air Travel Act (H.R. 6856), which, in part, establishes minimum civil penalties for repeat and egregious violations. It also calls for signage and public awareness campaigns. 

The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) crackdown on the increasing number of unruly passengers has proven to yield some results, so much so that it has made its zero-tolerance policy permanent. Could TSA learn any lessons from this? Inevitably there will be areas that TSA can pay attention to, such as the signage and public awareness initiatives, but the FAA was moving from warnings and counseling to hefty fines and criminal prosecution – a huge step change. There are already punishments for bringing a firearm to an airport checkpoint, but perhaps these need to be increased or more uniformly enforced. Even in today’s busy world, how hard can it be to check a bag before you take it to the airport, or to ensure that you know where your firearm is at all times? Any public awareness campaign may need to hit harder than the FAA’s if it is to get through to repeat offenders and make travelers aware of exactly what could happen if you bring a loaded gun to an airport checkpoint.

There is at least widespread recognition within Congress of both the problem and a need to do something about it before an accident happens. “Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle agree that those who break the law and endanger the safety of other passengers—and especially repeat offenders such as Rep. Cawthorn—must be held to account,” the Chairs wrote in their letter.

They are asking TSA to respond to the following questions: 

  • How is TSA responding to the alarming rise in firearms found at checkpoints? Please provide an update on the status of TSA’s efforts to address this challenge. 
  • How many firearms has TSA found at checkpoints so far in 2022, and what percent of those firearms were loaded? 
  • How many individuals who presented a loaded or unloaded firearm at a checkpoint in the last five years were repeat offenders? What penalties do repeat offenders currently face? 
  • In the past year, how many passengers have been caught carrying a firearm at Charlotte Douglas International Airport? a. What regulatory actions, if any, did TSA pursue against these passengers? This information may be provided to the Committee in anonymized form. b. Is TSA aware of any criminal investigations or prosecutions pursued against these other passengers by Federal or local authorities? This information may be provided to the Committee in anonymized form.

Addressing the Cawthorn incident in particular, in addition to requesting information from Charlotte Douglas airport, the Chairs ask:

  • What regulatory actions will TSA pursue related to Congressman Cawthorn’s second attempt to carry a loaded firearm through a checkpoint? Has TSA yet sought to impose any fines or civil penalties against Congressman Cawthorn? Has TSA suspended Congressman Cawthorn’s ability to receive benefits through TSA PreCheck or any other trusted traveler program? If so, when did this occur and for how long will the suspension last? 
  • Please outline the specific actions taken by TSA (and, to the extent TSA is aware, local law enforcement) following the detection of the firearm in Congressman Cawthorn’s carry-on. a. Were there any discrepancies, substantively or procedurally, in TSA’s response to the incident involving Congressman Cawthorn as compared to its response to factually similar incidents involving other passengers? 

The letter concludes that the Privacy Act is not a basis for withholding information responsive to the Chairs’ request. 

Read the full text of the letter to TSA at the House Committee on Homeland Security

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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