TSA Firearms Finds Reach Record Levels Despite Travel Slowdown

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Airports around the United States experienced their lowest levels of passenger traffic in years in 2020. Despite this, or maybe because of this, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) detected twice as many firearms per million passengers screened at airport security checkpoints nationwide in 2020 compared to 2019.

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The TSA seized record levels of guns at airport security checkpoints last year. Photo: Dallas Fort Worth Airport

TSA gun seizure rate doubles in 2020

Last year, the TSA detected 3,257 guns on passengers or in their carry-on bags at checkpoints in 2020. This equates to around 10 guns found per million passengers. It compares to about five guns per million passengers screened in 2019. Of the guns detected at security points last year, 83% were loaded.

According to the TSA, passengers can fly with guns in their checked baggage if they are properly packed and declared at check-in. Airlines and individual states and localities also have their own rules and regulations concerning guns on planes and in their airports.

“Firearms are strictly prohibited onboard planes in the passenger cabin,” says the TSA’s Darby LaJoye in a press statement issued on Tuesday. Mr LaJoye said taking guns through TSA screening points could pose a threat to passenger safety.

“I commend our officers for their commitment to TSA’s security mission by identifying and stopping these weapons at the TSA checkpoints,” he said.

According to the TSA, guns were found at security checkpoints at 234 airports around the United States last year. The busiest airports topped the list. The largest number of guns were seized at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International. The minor placegetters were Dallas Fort Worth Airport and Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

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Citing weak laws and a casual approach to the public carrying of firearms, a spokesperson for the Center for American Progress told Simple Flying;

“We are likely to continue to see guns showing up in places where they do not belong, including secure areas of airports.

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As passenger numbers increase, the pressure on TSA officers increases, and fewer guns may be found. Photo: Getty Images

Why are more guns getting found at TSA checkpoints?

Is this a case of more guns in airports or the TSA simply increasing their seizure rate from stable numbers? With fewer people passing through TSA security points in 2020, is it easier for the TSA officers to do their job?

An expert in risk-based security, Professor Sheldon H. Jacobson of the University of Illinois told Simple Flying that with fewer travelers on the move, TSA officers have fewer distractions and could better focus on the job of detecting threats.

But Professor Sheldon was also critical of the TSA reporting gun seizures on a per capita basis. In doing so, he said the “TSA obfuscates the fact that the risk profiles of travelers prior to COVID-19 is different from the current pool of travelers post-COVID-19.”

In normal years, a substantial portion of airline passengers in the United States are business travelers. They are typically frequent travelers who’ve been prescreened via the TSA PreCheck process, know the drill, and are unlikely to present a security risk.

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Increased take-up of screening processes like PreCheck allows the TSA to focus on unscreened passengers. Photo: Getty Images

In 2020, the traveler demographic changed in favor of less frequent leisure orientated passengers. It is these less regular travelers who haven’t been pre-screened that are more likely to be totting guns at TSA security points and pose a security risk.

But with lower passenger numbers, and the TSA can really focus on unscreened passengers. Associate Professor Sheldon last year said increased gun seizures was a positive thing. It showed the system was working.

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Fines and criminal prosecution on the table

Meanwhile, the TSA says fines for taking loaded firearms (or unloaded firearms with accessible ammunition) to security checkpoints, airside airport zones, or onto aircraft range from US$4,100 to $10,250. They will also refer more egregious offenses to criminal authorities for potential criminal prosecution.

Do these gun seizure numbers surprise you? Are authorities tough enough on travelers who roll up to TSA checkpoints with guns in their carry on luggage? Post a comment and let us know.

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