The recent local headlines look like this:
- “Loudoun County man stopped by TSA for having loaded gun at Dulles Airport”
- “TSA officers stop two guns in four days at Reagan National Airport”
- “TSA prevents man from carrying handgun onto a flight at Newark Liberty International Airport”
Such is becoming too common a story these days and vexing to a culture and society so attuned to security scrutiny, whether courthouses, conferences, college campuses, or concerts, that carrying a loaded gun onto a departing aircraft may be more a cry for help than concern for flight comfort.
Speculation aside, the numbers are precise: in 2022, 6,542 firearms were caught nationwide at 262 out of 430 airport security checkpoints. Eighty-eight percent of those guns were loaded. The record year marked a nearly 10% increase over the 5,972 firearms seized in the previous record year: 2021. It also shows a jump of some 400 percent from numbers ten years earlier.
No doubt about it—travel volumes were way up in 2022, returning to pre-pandemic levels. And TSA screened, on average, more than 2 million passengers per day, discovering firearms in carry-on luggage at a rate of 8.6 guns per million passengers screened. That comes out to one firearm for every 116,394 travelers screened—and at some airports, such as Phoenix or Dallas, the loaded firearms per screened passenger are much higher. But the numbers, alone do not tell the whole story.
Over the past few years, lobbying efforts by the National Rifle Association and other groups succeeded in passing laws in such states as Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Montana, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah to bestow permit-less conceal and carry privileges on residents – something that may hit the national agenda as well in the new Congress in the coming months.
Such relaxed regulations are now the rule in half of all U.S. states. Thus, with newly lax gun laws afoot, a groundswell of gun sales to new owners in the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic, and a tsunami of travel enthusiasm this past year that saw many new travelers hitting the skies, TSA has had to be more vigilant than ever in searching for weapons in some highly unlikely places as passengers pass through X-ray checkpoints.
The top ten airports for moving loaded guns through security are currently:
- Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport: 448
- Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport: 385
- George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Houston: 298
- Nashville International Airport: 213
- Sky Harbor International Airport, Phoenix: 196
- Orlando International Airport: 162
- Denver International Airport: 156
- Austin-Bergstrom International Airport: 150
- Fort Lauderdale Airport 134
- Tampa International Airport: 131
Los Angeles International Airport also saw its share of hidden firearms found in routine TSA screenings last year. Some 76 loaded guns were confiscated (up from 57 in 2018), despite California’s strict and well-enforced gun laws.
“While the cumulative number of firearms brought by travelers to the security checkpoints at Los Angeles-area airports is down slightly from last year, the fact remains that one gun discovered in carry-on luggage is one gun too many,” said TSA Federal Security Director in Los Angeles Jason Pantages, in a press release.
“TSA will continue to message firearm owners the proper way to travel with a gun on a commercial aircraft. This is for their safety, the safety of TSA employees who conduct screening of carry-on luggage in the security checkpoint and the traveling public.”
There are safe ways to do so for passengers who cannot travel without firearms, as presented on the TSA website. They must be unloaded, packed in a locked, hard-sided case, and placed in checked baggage. That practice also applies to gun facsimiles. In addition, the passenger must declare the firearm, ammunition and any gun parts at the ticket counter. Have you got a rifle scope? Feel free to take that onboard.
Simply forgetting you had a loaded gun in your pocket is not an excuse that TSA takes laughingly and lightly. The agency can levy civil penalties of up to $14,950 per violation per person.
Meanwhile, if announcing a record year for TSA gun confiscations is jarring, the agency also recently announced its “gotcha list” for its top ten catches—things people tried to smuggle through security X-ray sensors in 2022. Hiding items in chickens will no longer do the trick.
- Soiled money inside crutches (El Paso International Airport)
- An inert grenade (Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport)
- Electric cattle prod inside a guitar case (Washington Dulles International Airport)
- A gun inside a PlayStation (Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport)
- Drugs hidden in hair scrunchies (Boise Airport)
- A knife hidden in a laptop (Richmond International Airport)
- A gun in an arm sling (Greater Rochester International Airport)
- A gun hidden inside jars of peanut butter (John F. Kennedy International Airport)
- A gun inside a raw chicken (Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport)
- Fentanyl inside candy wrappers (Los Angeles International Airport)