By KYLE KOCHEVAR
Arizona Sonora News
[UPDATED Dec. 19)
The Transportation Security Administration has found a record number of guns in passengers’ carry-on bags this year at the nation’s 450 commercial airports, well in excess of previous years’ gun-hauls totals, which have been increasing annually.
As of Dec. 18, a total of 3,173 firearms had been discovered during 2016 at airport security checkpoints, according to an Arizona Sonora News tally of weekly data supplied by the TSA. The total for 2016 already significantly exceeds the 2015 record haul of 2,653 guns, most of them loaded, discovered in the carry-on bags of people seeking to board airplanes.
The trend of carrying guns when planning to board a plane, which has grown sharply in recent years, gives new meaning to the phrase “packing for the airport.” However, the TSA says, those found with guns at the security checkpoints typically explain that they commonly carry weapons in everyday life, and simply forgot that they had them in their bags when they went to the airport.
Last year, according to the TSA, the top 10 airports for what it calls “gun catches” were Dallas/Fort Worth (153); Hartsfield-Atlanta (144); Houston Bush Intercontinental (100); Denver International (90); Phoenix Sky Harbor (73); Nashville International (59); Seattle-Tacoma International (59); Dallas Love Field (57); Austin-Bergstrom International (54) and Houston Hobby (52).
Since two each of the top 10 airports for gun-catches were in Dallas and Houston, and one was in Austin, that means Texas airports accounted for over 400 of the guns discovered by the TSA last year.
The gun numbers need to be viewed in the context of total passenger numbers, however. The TSA screens more than 800 million domestic passengers a year. Atlanta, the busiest airport, had 49.8 million departing passengers last year. Dallas-Fort Worth had 31.7 million and Phoenix Sky Harbor had 22 million. Tucson International had about 1.6 million departing passengers.
At Tuscon International (“TUS”) 11 guns have been found at security checkpoints so far this year, the most recent on Nov. 15, according to the TSA reports.
At the Tucson airport when the TSA finds a gun the circumstances dictate what happens to it.
What happens when a firearm is discovered in a passenger’s bag at a security checkpoint? A lot depends on the location.
“When guns are found, the police and local law enforcement step in,” said Nico Melendez, a TSA spokesman. “They are at every airport.”
The TSA has no law-enforcement authority. It is up to state and local law enforcement to deal with found weapons in carry-on baggage, and the penalties vary depending on firearm-possession laws in that state and locality.
For example, in Texas a bill was passed in 2015 that says if someone who has a license to carry a concealed handgun and is found with it at a TSA checkpoint, before the secure area, that person is given an opportunity to leave the airport and avoid being cited. That person is then free to stash the firearm in a car or take it home, and then return to the airport to fly unhampered.
The number of guns discovered by the TSA has been rising steadily for the past 10 years, from 660 in 2005 to 2,653 in 2015 and then to this year’s record.
The most common firearms found in carry-on bags are the .380 and the 9mm, smaller caliber handguns that are typically carried for self-defense. In 2015, 83 percent of the guns found in carry-on bags at airports were loaded.
It is worth noting that people can travel with guns in checked baggage, “if they are transported in a locked, hard-sided container and declared to the airline before traveling,” according to the TSA website.
The point of the TSA blog is to showcase the work the TSA does in the airports around the country, Melendez said.
“The blog started 10 years ago,” Melendez said. “It was also an opportunity for them to connect with passengers. They also do this on Twitter as a way to answer questions.”
The TSA also has a Twitter account to give passengers basic information about security while traveling. Guns aside, many people bring or forget they have prohibited items. On Twitter the TSA reminds travelers, “Remember to check your baggage to ensure you are not carrying any prohibited items to avoid a possible arrest and/or civil penalties.”
Firearms are not the only weapons found in carry-on bags. Knives are also in abundance, but TSA also discovers unusual arms, such as the a live smoke-grenade that was found in someone’s checked bag at the Phoenix airport, according to the TSA. Although this was not in a carry-on bag, if it went off in the luggage compartment it could lead to an emergency landing.
This can be a problem for the passenger even if the weapons are not illegally carried or are carried without ill-intent. According to the TSA Blog, these types of incidents slow down the line, and a person who was not illegally carrying a weapon ends up with a citation or even an arrest. The TSA can also levy fines that can be as high as $12,856 per violation per person, according to the TSA website on civil enforcement.