A woman recently tried smuggling an 8 1/2-inch knife on an airplane by tucking it inside a big messy enchilada at the Sonoma County Airport in northern California.
But that was far from the biggest item on the contraband menu encountered by Transportation Security Administration screeners at the nation’s 450 commercial airports. Even in that one-week period last month, a cellphone stun-gun, cane sword and credit-card knife were among the examples of potential weapons that screeners found passengers trying to take on board.
More troubling, screeners also found 43 guns, 41 of them loaded, 13 with rounds in the chambers. That number stays fairly steady. During the week ended May 9, the TSA found 45 guns at checkpoints, 41 of them loaded.
Yes, people routinely carry guns in their carry-on bags. When confronted, most say they simply forgot about the gun they have in a carry-on bag — and sometimes even on their person — at the checkpoint.
Last year alone TSA confiscated roughly 1,500 firearms, according to David Castelveter, a spokesman for the agency. That was a record.
Of the airports were the most guns were discovered, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport was ranked 4th for 2013. Screeners found 66 guns at Phoenix, while Atlanta was ranked No. 1, with 111 gun catches.
Weekly breakdowns of guns and other weapons found, and information about gun-carrying policies, are available on the T.S.A.’s blog, blog.tsa.gov, a user-friendly page that posts weekly breakdowns of weapons confiscated. “The statistics are checkpoint stats, so not just carry-on bags. The stats include firearms that are on the person too,” Castelveter said.
The prohibited items list is designed to prevent any object that could be used for a terrorist attack. Firearms are obviously at the top of the list, but with laws on the right to carry firearms changing in many states it makes the T.S.A.’s job more challenging.
“If we catch you we ask you to surrender to us and we call the local law enforcement for that airport. They will either arrest you or let you leave depending on the state,” Castelveter said.
Some states, such a New York, will invoke serious criminal penalties for carrying a firearm to airport security. In other states with more lax gun-carry laws, like Arizona, those found with guns at a checkpoint might simply be asked to leave the gun behind in their cars.
Regardless of the state, the T.S.A. is required to call the police because the agency has no law enforcement authority. T.S.A. has to let local authorities decide if the person carrying the weapon is trying to inflict harm or if they really, “just forgot” they had the weapon with them, Castelveter said. .
On the other hand, the T.S.A. can impose fines on passengers based on an assessment of disruption that might have been caused when confiscating a weapon. For example the woman who concealed a knife in an enchilada is looking at possibly $10,000 in fines from T.S.A. according to T.S.A.’s twitter.
The agency’s blog describes, often with photographs, the weapons and other dangerous items found each week, and breaks down guns by airport, by type, and by whether they were loaded. On some weeks, the haul is especially big. The week of April 6th, 51 guns were found in carry-on bags, 45 of them were loaded.
Phoenix turned up again in the most recent week’s haul, for the week ended May 9. On May 3, a loaded 380 caliber gun was found in a passenger’s carry-on bag, two weeks after another loaded gun, a 38, had been found in another’s bag. The most recent instance of a firearm found at Tucson International Airport was on April 10, when a loaded 40-caliber weapon was discovered in a carry-on bag.
Guns aren’t the only weapons found. Credit card knifes have become very popular. Grenades and stun guns were also confiscated. Most grenades are inert, novelty, or replicas but some are live smoke, riot, or flash bang, which poses major safety issues. An inert grenade was discovered in a carry-on bag at Tucson airport a few weeks ago.
Guns, unloaded and packed according to specifications listed on the T.S.A. website, are allowed in passengers’ checked bags.
But why would anyone bring a gun to the checkpoint as they were boarding a flight? And since a basic rule of gun safety is to know where your weapons is at all times, why do so many people claim they forgot they were carrying one?
Castelveter laughed. “It perplexes us. People should take guns very seriously, and know where they are,” he said.
According to Castelveter, celebrities even try to sneak weapons on to planes because they feel they have more of a reason to carry protection. “When we confiscate a celebrity’s weapon they argue as public figures they should be able to protect themselves, but everyone is held to the same standard,” Castelveter said. There are usually only two exceptions, FBI agents and pilots trained and certified to handle certain firearms, according to Castelveter.