Guns at the Airport: TSA Catching Firearms at Record Pace

guns in airports, gun found in book

Firearms top the list of items passengers are prohibited from taking past airport security checkpoints and onto airplanes. Yet, during 2012 that didn't stop travelers from trying to get more than 1,500 handguns and other firearms past Transportation Security Administration officers at U.S. airports.

"It's definitely more than previous years," said David Castelveter, the TSA's director of external communications. He attributes the increased number of "catches" in part to "the continued vigilance of our officers and the higher volume of people traveling."

According to the TSA, last year 1,543 firearms -- 1,215 (78%) of them loaded – were discovered in carry-on bags at checkpoints at 199 of the nation's more than 450 commercial airports.

MORE: Guns in America: How Guns Affect Jobs, Money, Culture and Community in America

Most of the firearms discovered were handguns. One gun was found inside a hollowed out book at the Honolulu International Airport. A dissembled gun (and ammunition) was found hidden inside three stuffed animals at Providence T.F. Green Airport in Rhode Island. And while some people certainly try to sneak guns past checkpoints, Castelveter says most travelers caught with firearms at airports claim they simply forgot they had the weapon with them.

"It perplexes us. But our role is to keep guns off airplanes to insure bad people don't try to do bad things to the American public," said Castelveter. So "no matter what the excuse," once a firearm is found in a carry-on bag "a passenger is turned over to local law enforcement, which determines whether or not to press charges," he said.


At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (where in 2008 officials tried – and failed – to have the entire airport declared a gun-free zone), transportation security officers (TSOs) reported finding 95 firearms in carry-on bags at checkpoints during the past year. That secured ATL, the country's busiest airport, the number one position on the 2012 list of "Top 5 Airports for Gun Discoveries" posted on the TSA's blog.

Other airports on the "Top 5" list include Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (80 firearms), Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (54 firearms), Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport (52 firearms) and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (42 firearms found).

At ATL, anyone without the authority to travel with a firearm who attempts to take one through a checkpoint is arrested and charged with possession of a weapon in a secure location and taken to the county jail.

"I believe the majority of people simply made a mistake and forgot the gun was in their bag," said Major Lane Hagin, commander of the airport section of the Atlanta Police Department, "And I'd like to think nothing more nefarious is going on. But people try law enforcement every day to see where the holes are. So who knows?"

In Arizona, where residents 21 and older do not need a permit to carry a concealed weapon, no criminal charges were made in 2012 against any of the 54 travelers TSOs discovered with a firearm in a carry-on bag at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX).

As with many other airports, "the majority of our cases are folks who say they forgot they had a firearm in some sort of carry-on, pack or bag," said Sergeant Trent Crump, spokesman for the Phoenix police department. At PHX, when a TSO discovers a firearm, "what we really look at is culpability," said Crump. "Was the person hiding [the firearm] in some sort of compartment or some sort of container that looked like they were trying to get it through? Just because someone has [a firearm] doesn't mean it meets the element of a criminal offense" in Arizona.

For that reason, Crump said a firearm found at a checkpoint at Phoenix Sky Harbor is usually returned to its owner. And "if the owner has the ability to secure the weapon," i.e. place it in checked luggage, they can usually travel on a later flight.


In response to the Newtown school shootings, President Barack Obama has put new gun control laws on the table, including a universal background check and an assault weapons ban. But Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at the UCLA School of Law and the author of "Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America," says he hasn't heard any new proposals for banning guns in the pre-security areas of airports.

"People are talking about more broad-based types of laws," said Winkler, "But if there was a mass shooting in a non-secure area of an airport, you'd hear it being discussed. It's clear TSA has the authority to issue broader security commands to airports that include the public areas and that Congress could ban guns in these areas."

In the meantime, TSA continues its efforts to keep firearms (and other prohibited items) from passing through airport checkpoints.

In the first two weeks of January 2013, 49 firearms were discovered in carry-on bags at U.S. airport checkpoints, including one handgun at the Atlanta airport and two at Phoenix Sky Harbor. During the first two weeks of 2012, 38 firearms were spotted in carry-on bags at airport checkpoints.

-- Harriet Baskas reports on airports, air travel, museums and many other topics for a variety of outlets, including her blog, Stuck at The Airport.

[Photo: TSA]
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