TSA Airport Guns

Transportation Security Administration officers process passengers at a security screening area at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Washington state on May 18, 2020. AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File

WASHINGTON — Many things, including air travel, slowed significantly during the pandemic – but not irresponsible travelers taking guns to airports.

In 2021, the Transportation Security Administration caught 5,972 firearms at airport checkpoints, the most ever. That’s an increase of more than one-third over the 4,432 guns found in 2019, the next highest year and just before the coronavirus ravaged the world. The number of firearms found has soared by more than six times since 2008.

The increase in guns is particularly stark when compared with the decreasing number of passengers.

In 2019, the TSA said it found one firearm for every 197,358 passengers. In 2021, that rate doubled to one firearm detected for every 97,999 passengers.

This “status quo is simply unacceptable,” said Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., chairwoman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation and maritime security, which has explored ways to reduce the numbers of guns being seized at airports.

The reason the number of guns rose as airline passenger traffic fell isn’t clear. Higher gun sales might be a contributing factor. So might the changing nature of passengers during the pandemic. As airlines dropped ticket prices to attract customers, this theory reckons, more passengers who ordinarily don’t fly took to the skies, even as business and frequent fliers stayed home.


“They aren’t as familiar with the rules, nor are they accustomed to checking for prohibited items before going to the airport,” Jeffrey C. Price, an aerospace professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said in an email. “That’s the most common rationale given for the increase.”

Whatever the reason, “the increase in unruly passenger incidents, alongside the increase in firearms injected into the aviation environment, make for a toxic combination,” said Watson Coleman. “Bringing a firearm to a checkpoint is a federal crime. If you intend to bring a gun on a plane, you can go to prison for it.”

During a recent hearing Watson Coleman chaired, Balram Bheodari, general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, suggested strengthening penalties, mandating gun safety training for violators and including them on the no-fly list until training is complete.

Jason D. Wallis, Airport Law Enforcement Agencies Network president and Port of Portland police chief, also recommended “significantly raising the civil penalties” and permanently, not just temporarily, revoking benefits of the Trusted Traveler program, which allows passengers access to expedited lanes before airport checkpoints.

The top Republican on the subcommittee objected to harsher penalties and for more effective passenger education, through “greater signage all over the airport.”

“This is not a gun-control issue,” said Rep. Carlos Gimenez of Florida, sticking to a Republican mantra. “This is an education issue.”


But unlike common Republican talking points on federal employees, Gimenez also pushed for increased pay for “our dedicated transportation security officers. … They deserve better pay that is reflective of the immense value that they provide to our aviation system.”

He also urged the TSA to secure next-generation scanning technology “to accurately find firearms and other prohibited items in carry-on bags.”

The latest technology helps, but, said Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, “there is no action, response, or antidote to the current surge in illegal passenger-carried firearms more effective than a well-trained and well-treated TSO workforce.”

Witnesses from two airports at the hearing agreed that more than 90 percent of travelers caught with a weapon said they simply forgot about it. That led Gimenez to doubt the effectiveness of harsher penalties on violators “because it was a mistake.”

But a faulty memory is not an acceptable excuse for Watson Coleman.

Noting that 86 percent of the guns TSA finds are loaded, “it is hard for me to believe 90 percent of people that get caught with a gun in their bag forgot they had it. And even if they did forget they had it, it is still an illegal act, and we need to be treating it as such.”


The danger of guns at airports was demonstrated in November, when a passenger attempted to get through security in Atlanta with a firearm in his bag.

“When his bag was selected for secondary screening, he reached into the bag and grabbed his weapon,” Bheodari recalled. “The weapon discharged, once, and passengers in the security queue understandably ran for cover.” Passengers, in a long line, panicked, ran, “just abandon everything, and start running for cover,” he said. The airport was closed for 212 hours, with a financial impact estimated at $6.25 million.

With guns at airports, Watson Coleman said the “possibility of a tragedy is difficult to overstate.”

TSA Administrator David Pekoske told CBS News in January that getting caught with a gun at a checkpoint can be costly in more ways than one.

“Know that if you do have a weapon and it’s detected in the checkpoint, it’s first going to take you a lot more time,” he said. “Secondly, there might be local law enforcement action. And third, we will follow up with a civil penalty action, so it’s a very costly mistake to make.” The fines range up to $13,910.

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