Last year, more than 771 million people passed through airport security nationwide. Among the liquids and wrapped presents Transportation Security Administration agents unearth in passengers’ carry-ons, they’re finding more and more firearms.
From 2015 to 2017, the TSA found at least 9,866 firearms in carry-on baggage at airports nationwide.
Unlike laptops or liquids under three ounces, firearms are listed on TSA’s prohibited items list, meaning like aerosol containers and lighters, they’re not allowed in the cabin, and can only be packed in a checked bag.
According to Guns & America’s analysis of data released by TSA, the number of guns found at airport security checkpoints has grown. The TSA found 3,896 guns at airports across the country in 2017 — 49 percent more guns than the 2,608 guns found in 2015.
More than 85 percent of these guns were loaded and more than 3 in 10 firearms found were “round-chambered” and ready to shoot.
The analysis of TSA data paints a picture of the firearms floating around our communities every day. Many of the guns found at airport security were left in the bottom of bags or in purses, forgotten until their owner slid their carry-on bag through screening equipment.
Carrying a gun through a TSA checkpoint is illegal. But due to the growth in state-issued concealed carry permits, many jurisdictions let permit-holders carry loaded firearms on their person or in a bag.
“They don’t think twice about it,” said Jeff Price, a former assistant security director at Denver International Airport. “They think ‘I have a permit,’ and that permit I know is good across state lines. They don’t think that does not apply on an airplane.”
According to the Crime Prevention Research Center, a conservative nonprofit organization, more than 17.2 million people have concealed handgun permits in 2018, up more than 5 percent since 2017.
“It’s hard to speculate,” said TSA spokeswoman Carrie Harmon. “Most passengers say that they forgot their firearm was in their carry-on bag. We want to remind people, you need to check your bags when you pack them.”
It’s not just firearms that are illegal to carry through TSA; transporting ammunition in your carry-on is also prohibited.
According to Guns & America’s analysis, 8,474 of the guns left in carry-ons found by TSA over the course of these three years were loaded.
Location, Location, Location
In 2017, the most recent full year we have data available, TSA agents found the most guns in carry-ons at:
Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International (ATL) in Atlanta, Georgia
Dallas/Fort Worth International (DFW) in Dallas, Texas
Austin–Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) in Austin, Texas
George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) in Houston, Texas
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) in Phoenix, Arizona
ATL, DFW and IAH are among the world’s busiest airports.
When you adjust the numbers to account for the number of passengers at each airport, however, the rankings show a different picture.
TSA releases the raw numbers of guns its agents discover in baggage in weekly reports. Guns & America analyzed TSA data to compare the rate at which agents find guns at each airport.
Among the 84 U.S. airports with more than 1 million passengers in 2017, Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International (BHM) in Alabama saw the highest rate of firearms found per passenger: 3.68 per 100,000 passengers.
In Atlanta at ATL, that rate was 0.52 per 100,000 passengers. At DFW in Dallas, it was 0.55 per 100,000.
Like Birmingham, at smaller airports in cities such as Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Boise and Spokane, TSA agents discovered more guns per passenger than at the larger, busier airports.
While passenger volume can impact the number of guns found, Guns & America’s analysis of TSA data found airports with high passenger volume in states with strict gun laws, like LAX in Los Angeles and New York’s JFK, saw a lower number of guns discovered in carry-ons in 2017.
When a TSA agent finds a firearm in a carry-on, they contact airport police. Police then take possession of the weapon and determine whether or not there will be criminal charges.
The TSA can then also levy a civil penalty, which can be as high as $13,300.
At Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, for instance, authorities perform a background check on the passenger. If the traveler passes a background check and has a License To Carry (LTC), they are able to take their gun back home or to their car.
If they do not have an LTC, a case is usually filed with the local Criminal District Attorney’s Office, depending on the location of the checkpoint.
From there, the perceived intent of the gun owner determines whether the charge will be classified as a misdemeanor or a felony.
“You would think everyone would know what’s in their luggage,” said Larry Moore, Criminal Division Chief in the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office.
Plus there’s the practical implication: Finding a gun slows down a TSA checkpoint, diverting passengers to other lanes. And that commotion, or lack thereof, could determine whether police issue a typical citation or arrest the passenger.
“It really depends on the person,” Price said. “If they truly forgot it and [they] realize they forgot it, the commotion more is, they’re apologetic all over the place.”
For those who want to travel with their gun, domestic U.S. airlines expect you to inform them, pack it in a hard case, unloaded and separate from ammunition in your checked bag.
As the holiday travel season reaches a fever pitch, the TSA says to check your bag before you arrive, and always get to the airport early, regardless of whether or not you plan to travel with your gun.
About the data
TSA publishes its data on firearms found in checkpoints as images (png files.) For gathering the data, Guns & America used a technique known as OCR, and manual data input. The TSA doesn’t update those images retroactively, so end of the year totals calculated by Guns & America may vary from final annual numbers reported by TSA.
Guns & America used the Bureau of Transportation Statistics data for the number of passengers by airport as it compares to the number of firearms discovered. Only the the number of people who boarded a flight with origin in a U.S. airport were included to calculated the rate, as a proxy of people who crossed a TSA checkpoint.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.