On Wednesday the Transportation Security Administration released what appeared to be a staggering statistic: 4,432 guns were seized at U.S. airport checkpoints in 2019. At 278 airports, passengers wore or tucked these firearms—87 percent of them loaded—into their carry-on luggage. This marks an increase from the 4,239 firearms confiscated in 2018 and set a new record in TSA’s 18-year history.
According to the report, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International—the nation’s busiest airport—seized 323 firearms, the most of any airport. Dallas/Fort Worth International followed with 217, and Denver International had 140. TSA Administrator David Pekoske acknowledged that these findings are “deeply troubling.”
While airport passengers carrying guns may seem unnerving, it’s not illegal to travel with them if you have the correct permits and follow TSA protocol, which includes not planning to stow them in the overhead bin. Unlike the minor annoyance of losing a 6-ounce tube of toothpaste, bringing a firearm to a security checkpoint can cost you thousands of dollars in fines, as well as potential criminal charges.
TSA hasn’t offered insight into why flyers are ignoring the procedures and waltzing up to security with guns in tow, but aviation security expert Sheldon H. Jacobson suspects the culprits just don’t fly much. “Although it sounds very sensational, in reality these firearm detections may be more benign than people realize,” Jacobson said. He emphasized that only about 12 guns were seized—from over 2 million people being screened—per day. He also noted that the 5 percent increase from 2018 is the smallest in the past five years.
“I would just question, ‘Is there any nefarious intent with these guns?’ ” he said. “And no evidence has suggested that there is.”
What about the weapons the TSA doesn’t detect? Studies estimate TSA fails to detect an unsettling 70 to 95 percent of weapons, depending on the test. But Jacobson said that most missed test weapons are improvised explosive devices. Firearms are much easier to spot since they have a “particular structure, shape, and form,” he said.
That’s why so many of them are found at checkpoints. While TSA has not released further information on its security measures, Jacobson said that the 2.8 percent increase in passenger traffic between 2018 and 2019 could factor into the rise of firearms seizures, in addition to improved screening techniques, such as enhanced X-ray machines.
Jacobson doesn’t feel the rise in firearm seizures is cause for alarm. “If they collected 10,000 guns, would you feel safer? Or if they collected 10 guns?” he said. “If it went down, people would be concerned that they’re not doing a good job. If it’s going up, [people ask], ‘Why is it going up?’ ”
So as long as firearms are allowed in airports, TSA will keep finding them in carry-ons. If there’s anything to be up in arms over, it’s the checked baggage fees.