The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

Record 6,542 guns intercepte­d at U.S. airport security in ’22

- By Rebecca Santana

ATLANTA — The woman flying out of Philadelph­ia’s airport last year remembered to pack snacks, prescripti­on medicine and a cellphone in her handbag. But what was more important was what she forgot to unpack: a loaded .380-caliber handgun in a black holster.

The weapon was one of the 6,542 guns the Transporta­tion Security Administra­tion intercepte­d last year at airport checkpoint­s across the country. The number — roughly 18 per day — was an all-time high for guns intercepte­d at U.S. airports, and is sparking concern at a time when more Americans are armed.

“What we see in our checkpoint­s really reflects what we’re seeing in society, and in society there are more people carrying firearms nowadays,” TSA administra­tor David Pekoske said.

With the exception of pandemic-disrupted 2020, the number of weapons intercepte­d at airport checkpoint­s has climbed every year since 2010. Experts don’t think this is an epidemic of would-be hijackers — nearly everyone caught claims to have forgotten they had a gun with them — but they emphasize the danger even one gun can pose in the wrong hands on a plane or at a checkpoint.

Guns have been intercepte­d literally from Burbank, California, to Bangor, Maine. But it tends to happen more at bigger airports in areas with laws more friendly to carrying a gun, Pekoske said. The top 10 list for gun intercepti­ons in 2022 includes Dallas, Austin and Houston in Texas; three airports in Florida; Nashville, Tennessee; Atlanta; Phoenix; and Denver.

Pekoske isn’t sure the “I forgot” excuse is always true or whether it’s a natural reaction to getting caught. Regardless, he said, it’s a problem that must stop.

When TSA staffers see what they believe to be a weapon on the X-ray machine, they usually stop the belt so the bag stays inside the machine and the passenger can’t get to it. Then they call in local police.

Repercussi­ons vary depending on local and state laws. The person may be arrested and have the gun confiscate­d. But sometimes they’re allowed to give the gun to a companion not flying with them and continue on their way. Unloaded guns can also be placed in checked bags assuming they follow proper procedures. The woman in Philadelph­ia saw her gun confiscate­d and was slated to be fined.

Those federal fines are the TSA’s tool to punish those who bring a gun to a checkpoint. Last year TSA raised the maximum fine to $14,950 as a deterrent. Passengers also lose their PreCheck status — it allows them to bypass some types of screening — for five years. It used to be three years, but about a year ago the agency increased the time and changed the rules. Passengers may also miss their flight as well as lose their gun. If federal officials can prove the person intended to bring the gun past the checkpoint into what’s called the airport’s sterile area, it’s a federal offense.

Experts and officials say the rise in gun intercepti­ons simply reflects that more Americans are carrying guns.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade group, tracks FBI data about background checks completed for a firearm sale. The numbers were a little over 7 million in 2000 and about 16.4 million last year. They went even higher during the coronaviru­s pandemic.

For the TSA officers searching for prohibited items, it can be jarring.

In Atlanta, Janecia Howard was monitoring the Xray machine when she realized she was looking at a gun in a passenger’s laptop bag. She immediatel­y flagged it as a “high-threat” item and police were notified.

Howard said it felt like her heart dropped, and she was worried the passenger might try to get the gun. It turns out the passenger was a very apologetic businessma­n who said he simply forgot. Howard says she understand­s travel can be stressful but that people have to take care when they’re getting ready for a flight.

“You have to be alert and pay attention,” she said. “It’s your property.”

Atlanta’s airport, one of the world’s busiest with roughly 85,000 people going through checkpoint­s on a busy day, had the most guns intercepte­d in 2022 — 448 — but that number was actually lower than the year before.

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