US airports intercept total of 6,542 guns in 2022

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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 US airports and is sparking concern at a time when more Americans are armed.


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“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.

A TSA officer screens an airline passenger in Terminal C at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport December 27, 2009 in Dallas, Texas. (File photo: AFP)
A TSA officer screens an airline passenger in Terminal C at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport December 27, 2009 in Dallas, Texas. (File photo: AFP)


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.

Retired TSA official Keith Jeffries said gun interceptions can also slow other passengers in line.

“It’s disruptive no matter what,” Jeffries said. “It’s a dangerous, prohibited item and, let’s face it, you should know where your gun is at, for crying out loud.”

More Americans are carrying guns

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.

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. Robert Spinden, the TSA’s top official in Atlanta, says the agency and the airport made a big effort in 2021 to try to address the large number of guns being intercepted at checkpoints.

An incident in November 2021 reinforced the need for their efforts. A TSA officer noticed a suspected gun in a passenger’s bag. When the officer opened the suitcase the man reached for the gun, and it went off. People ran for the exits, and the airport was shut down for 2 1/2 hours, the airport’s general manager Balram Bheodari said during a congressional hearing last year.

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