ATLANTA, Feb. 20 (AP) — The woman who flew out of Philadelphia Airport last year remembers packing snacks, prescription drugs and a cell phone in her handbag. But even more important was what she forgot to unpack: a loaded .380 caliber pistol in a black holster.
The weapon was one of 6,542 firearms TSA seized at airport checkpoints across the country last year. The number — about 18 a day — is a record high for guns intercepted at U.S. airports and has sparked concern at a time when more Americans are carrying weapons.
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“What we’re seeing at checkpoints is a true reflection of what we’re seeing in society, where more people are now carrying guns,” said TSA Director David Pekoske.
The number of weapons intercepted at airport checkpoints has climbed every year since 2010, except for 2020, which was interrupted by the pandemic. Experts don’t think it’s a common phenomenon among hijackers — nearly everyone arrested claims to have forgotten they had a gun with them — but they stress that even a gun can end up in bad guys on a plane or at a checkpoint hands.
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Guns were intercepted from Burbank, California, to Bangor, Maine. But it tends to happen at larger airports in areas with more gun-friendly laws, Pekoske said. The top 10 list for gun interceptions in 2022 includes Dallas, Austin and Houston, Texas; three airports in Florida; Nashville, Tennessee; Atlanta; Phoenix; and Denver.
Pekoske isn’t sure if the “I forgot” excuse is always true, or if it’s a natural reaction to getting caught. Regardless, he said, this is a problem that must stop.
When TSA agents see what they believe to be a weapon on an X-ray machine, they typically stop the conveyor belt, leaving luggage in the machine out of reach for passengers. Then they called the local police.
Effects vary by local and state law. The person may be arrested and the gun confiscated. But sometimes they are allowed to hand over their guns to companions who are not flying with them and continue their journey. Unloaded firearms may also be placed in checked baggage if proper procedures are followed. This Philadelphia woman saw her gun confiscated and was about to be fined.
These federal fines are the TSA’s tool to punish those who bring firearms to checkpoints. Last year, TSA increased the maximum fine to $14,950 as a deterrent.
Riders also lose their PreCheck status — which allows them to bypass certain types of checks — for five years. It used to be three years, but about a year ago the agency added time and changed the rules.
Passengers could also miss their flights and lose their firearms. It would be a federal crime if federal officials could prove that someone intended to pass a gun through a checkpoint into a so-called sterile area of an airport.
Keith Jeffries, a retired TSA official, said intercepting firearms also slows down lines for other passengers.
“In any case, it’s devastating,” Jeffries said. “It’s a dangerous prohibited item and let’s face it, you should know where your gun is, shout it out.”
Experts and officials say the increase in gun seizures simply reflects the growing number of Americans carrying guns.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade group, tracks FBI data on background checks completed for gun sales. In 2000 the figure was just over 7 million and last year it was around 16.4 million. They’re even higher during the coronavirus pandemic.
This can be off-putting for TSA officers searching for prohibited items.
In Atlanta, Janecia Howard was monitoring an X-ray machine when she realized she was seeing a gun in a passenger’s laptop bag. She immediately flagged it as a “high risk” item and notified police.
Howard said her heart dropped as she feared the passenger might try to get a gun. Turns out the passenger was a very apologetic businessman who said he just forgot. Howard said she knows traveling can be stressful, but people have to be careful when preparing to fly.
“You have to be vigilant and aware,” she said, “this is your property.”
Atlanta airport, one of the busiest in the world, with about 85,000 people passing through checkpoints on a busy day, had the highest number of guns intercepted in 2022 — 448 — but that number was actually lower than the previous year.
TSA Atlanta’s top official, Robert Spinden, said the agency and the airport made a huge effort in 2021 to try to address the high number of guns being seized at checkpoints.
An incident in November 2021 reinforced the need for their efforts. A TSA officer found what appeared to be a firearm in a passenger’s bag. When the officer opened the suitcase, the man reached for the gun, which went off. Airport general manager Balram Bheodari told a congressional hearing last year that people ran for the exits and the airport was closed for 2.5 hours.
Officials put up new signs to draw the attention of gun owners. The hologram above the checkpoint shows an image of a spinning blue gun with a red circle above it and a line running through it. Many 70-inch TV screens flashed spinning messages that guns were not allowed.
“There’s signage all over the airport. There’s bulletins, holograms, TVs. There’s quite a bit of information that flashes before your eyes just to remind you, as a last resort, if you do own a gun, do you know where it is?” Spindon said.
Miami’s airport has also struggled to get the attention of gun owners. Airport chiefs told Congress last year that after setting records for gun stops in 2021, they installed high-visibility signage and worked with airlines to warn passengers. He said the number of guns intercepted has dropped dramatically.
Pekoske says signage is only part of the solution. Travelers are already faced with a barrage of signs or announcements and don’t always pay attention. He also backed a gradual increase in penalties to draw attention to it.
But Aidan Johnston, from the gun advocacy group Gun Owners of America, said he would like to see fines reduced, saying it was not a deterrent. While he would like to see more education for new gun owners, he also doesn’t see it as a “major heinous crime”.
“These people are not bad people who need to be punished,” he said. “These people made mistakes.”
Officials think they’re catching the vast majority, but with the 730 million passengers who went through security screening last year, even a tiny fraction are worrisome.
Last month, musician Cliff Waddell was stopped at a checkpoint while traveling from Nashville, Tennessee, to Raleigh, North Carolina. A TSA officer saw a gun in his bag. Waddell was so shocked he initially said it couldn’t be his as he had flown the day before with the same bag. Turns out the gun was in his bag, but it got lost during the screening. TSA acknowledged the error, and Pekoske said they were investigating.
While trying to figure out how the gun he’d been locking in the glove box got into his school bag, Waddell realized he’d removed it while taking the vehicle in for repairs. Waddell said he acknowledged his responsibility to know where his guns are, but worried how the TSA could have missed something so important.
“It shocked me,” he said. (Associated Press)
(This is an unedited and auto-generated story from a Syndicated News feed, the content body may not have been modified or edited by LatestLY staff)