TSA sees ‘disturbing’ rise in firearms at security checkpoints – and most are loaded

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Queues of people wait to get through TSA airport security.

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“I forgot.”

That’s the main reason why Transportation Security Administration agents say they belong at airport security checkpoints when they catch a passenger with a firearm.

Of the 5,832 firearms seized so far this year, nearly 88% were loaded on Monday, according to the TSA. The total number is quickly overtaking last year’s record of 5,972 – or about 17 guns per day.

The news comes ahead of the busiest travel time of the year — when nearly 55 million Americans are estimated to travel this Thanksgiving, according to AAA — just below pre-pandemic levels.

“It’s very concerning because firearms are prohibited at the checkpoint — and certainly on board the plane,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske told TBEN. “We have seen an increase nationwide… [and in] parts of the country where open carry and concealed gun permits are higher, [that] generally indicates that we will find higher weapons at our checkpoints.”

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Top 5 Airports for TSA Gun Seizures, through November 21

  1. Atlanta Hartsfield–Jackson International Airport (ATL) 407
  2. Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) 340
  3. George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) 268 in Houston
  4. Nashville International Airport (BNA) 185
  5. Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (PHX) 172

It is legal to travel with a firearm, but only if it has been declared to the airline before the flight, unloaded and properly packed in checked baggage. According to the TSA, passengers caught with weapons were fined $52 million in civil penalties over the past three years.

“I have complete confidence in our transportation security officers to stop this one,” said Steve Wood, the Federal Security Director of the TSA in Tennessee. “But we need the public’s help not to take them.”

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Atlanta tops the list because it is such a large airport, Pekoske said. “There’s just more people coming into the Atlanta airport.”

To date, Atlanta is 100 off last year’s record of 507. However, three of the top 5 airports on the list – DFW, IAH and BNA – have already broken records for the number of firearms stopped at security checkpoints in 2022.

Last month, the Nashville airport broke a record for the number of firearms found in one year at 170, surpassing last year’s record of 163. That number has since risen to 185.

“We’ve moved up the list — from number 6 to number 5 and then to number 4,” Wood said.

Part of the reason, he says, is that in July 2021, Tennessee firearms laws changed to not require a license to carry a firearm. “During that first month, we saw 25 firearms — which was the biggest month we’ve ever had,” Wood told TBEN.

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According to TSA officials, the number of firearms intercepted in Nashville is 2.5 times the national rate — or one firearm for nearly 37,799 screened passengers.

It is not a federal crime to bring a firearm to a checkpoint. However, the agency has the power to impose a federal civil penalty on those who do.

According to the TSA, being caught with a firearm carries a $1,500 civil fine. When the gun is loaded, that figure jumps to $3,000. For repeat offenders, fines can reach nearly $13,910.

“It’s a very expensive mistake, and it’s also a very time-consuming mistake,” Pekoske said. “It is very likely that you will not be able to fly on the flight you originally booked, and sometimes passengers may not even be able to fly that day, depending on flight schedules from the airport.”

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