Airport security officials have confiscated more firearms this year than ever before, even though fewer travelers have flown during the pandemic and more than two months remain before the end of the calendar year.
As of the beginning of this month, the Transportation Security Administration says it had stopped 4,495 passengers from carrying guns, most of them loaded, onto flights. That total exceeds the previous record of 4,432 guns confiscated from air travelers in 2019.
TSA officers this year have confiscated a firearm from about 11 airline passengers per million, compared to the rate of 5 per million in 2019.
“This really follows trends taking place in communities with increases in gun ownership,” TSA spokesperson Robert Langston said, adding that the incidents cause unnecessary delay for travelers and are costly mistakes for the owners of the confiscated weapons.
Amy Hunter, spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association, said millions of Americans became new gun owners recently due to prison furloughs, “ill-conceived efforts” to defund the police and a realization that self-defense is “ultimately in their own hands.”
Firearms were detected at nearly 250 airports throughout the U.S., according to the TSA. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ranked at the top of the list for most firearms detected, with 391 guns discovered.
Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport trailed in second place with 232 firearms detected. George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston came in third with 168 guns uncovered.
TSA data show that the number of guns confiscated at airport security checkpoints has steadily increased each year since 2009 except 2020, when pandemic-related closures and protocols brought air travel to a near halt. Last year, TSA officers found 3,257 firearms.
While fewer airline passengers meant fewer firearms, TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein said the rate of guns actually doubled from 5 per million passengers in 2019 to 10 per million passengers in 2020.
When TSA officers detect a firearm in a carry-on bag, they alert police, who confiscate the weapon. Police then decide if the person is to be cited, arrested or allowed to continue their travel. The TSA will determine a civil penalty based on whether the traveler has any previous offenses and whether the firearm was loaded.
Penalties for bringing a firearm through a checkpoint range from $1,500 for an unloaded gun to $10,000 for a loaded weapon. A repeat offender could be fined up to $13,910 for a loaded weapon or unloaded firearm with accessible ammunition.
Airline passengers may travel with firearms that are unloaded and packed in a locked, hard-sided case in checked baggage, the TSA said. Passengers must alert officials of packed firearms at the airline check-in counter and let them know why they are traveling with their weapons.
Laws about firearm possession differ by state and local government.
“This uptick in firearms confiscated at airports serves as a good reminder to all gun owners — old and new — to check bags before traveling and to refresh themselves on the rules of flying with a firearm,” said the NRA’s Ms. Hunter.
The Federal Aviation Administration also has reported a “disturbing increase in incidents” in which airline passengers have acted threateningly or violently and disrupted flights this year.
As of Tuesday, the FAA reported 4,837 incidents involving unruly passengers and 3,511 mask-related incidents. There were 5.8 unruly passenger incidents per 10,000 flights reported for the week ending Oct. 10, data shows.
Moreover, 906 investigations and 206 enforcement cases have been initiated, the FAA said. An unruly passenger could be fined up to $37,000 per violation, up from the previous maximum civil penalty of $25,000 per violation.