Over the past three years, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has levied more than $52 million in civil penalties against travelers caught with guns at security checkpoints, according to a TSA official. With two months still left in 2022, that figure has already topped $20 million just this year.
Getting caught with a firearm at an airport checkpoint carries a civil fine of $1,500, according to TSA guidance. If the gun is loaded – as 87% are, according to the agency – then the fine jumps to $3,000. Civil penalties can be much more onerous for repeat offenders, climbing to a potential maximum of nearly $14,000.
But gun owners are not getting the message. With the busy holiday travel season still ahead, the TSA has already caught roughly 5,000 guns this year, which puts the agency on track to break last year’s record of 5,972 firearms detected at checkpoints.
Guns, ammunition and gun parts are prohibited beyond airport security checkpoints. Passengers may legally travel with their firearms, but only if they are packed, unloaded, in a locked hard-sided case in checked luggage and declared with the airline before the flight.
Anytime a TSA officer spots a handgun on the x-ray machine, all screening stops while local law enforcement is notified. The local police then takes control of the firearm and removes the traveler and the weapon from the checkpoint.
Travelers caught with firearms at checkpoints also may be subject to criminal charges in states and local jurisdictions that have stricter gun restrictions.
“In New York, somebody brings a firearm to a checkpoint, they’re going to get a perp walk out of the airport in handcuffs,” said the TSA official. “In a more permissive gun state, that’s not going to be the case. Local law enforcement may tell the traveler, ‘Hey, go lock that thing up in your vehicle and then come back and go through security again.’”
The latter scenario may soon be the norm, thanks to a loosening of gun laws around the country. In 2021 and 2022, a wave of 10 states – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Montana, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and Utah – passed laws no longer requiring residents to hold a permit to carry a concealed firearm. A legislative priority for the National Rifle Association and other groups, permitless carry measures are now in place in nearly half of all states.
These new laws, combined with soaring travel demand in the third year of the Covid-19 pandemic, are contributing to an increase in guns at airports across the country. “We’ve got a significant rise in the population of new, never-before gun owners. And then we have a significant rise in new air travelers,” said the TSA official.
Consider Tennessee. In the week between October 18 and October 25, the TSA caught eight firearms at Nashville International Airport security checkpoints, bringing the airport’s year-to-date total to 170, beating last year’s record of 163. With two months left in the year, Memphis International Airport has also already broken its own record for guns caught at a rate three and a half times greater than the national average.
“Since the implementation of new gun laws in the state last year, we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of firearms brought to Tennessee security checkpoints,” said Steve Wood, TSA Federal Security Director for Tennessee, in a press release.
When it comes to the volume of guns caught at security checkpoints, no airport in the country tops Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, where last year the TSA stopped 507 firearms. The airport generated national attention a year ago when a passenger’s firearm went off at the main security checkpoint, causing panic throughout the terminal and concourses and disrupting flights. Less than six months later, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed legislation making it legal for gun owners to carry a concealed handgun in public without a license.
In a ranking of airports where TSA caught the most guns last year, Hartsfield-Jackson handily beat Dallas/Fort Worth (317 guns caught), Houston’s George W. Bush (245 guns) and Phoenix Sky Harbor (196 guns), according to TSA data.
Federal Problem vs. State Gun Laws
Several months after the incident at Hartsfield-Jackson airport, the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee in charge of transportation security held a hearing to address the surge in firearms at TSA checkpoints. Members of Congress heard testimony from various witnesses, including Jason Wallis, Chief of Police at the Port of Portland in charge of Portland International Airport (PDX) and the current President of the Airport Law Enforcement Agencies Network (ALEAN), representing over 100 police departments located at the country’s largest airports.
Wallis testified that, in the years leading up to the pandemic, PDX saw the number of guns at airport checkpoints more than triple, from 19 guns in 2011 to 66 in 2019. “Over 90% of these firearms were loaded,” he said.
After the Port of Portland engaged with state lawmakers, the Oregon legislature passed a law redefining the passenger terminal at PDX as a “public building” in Oregon. “This meant that existing state law, which makes intentional possession of a firearm in public buildings a felony, would be applicable at PDX,” Wallis told the committee. “Individuals with a concealed handgun license are also subject to prosecution for bringing a firearm to the checkpoint but those cases are a misdemeanor, not felony.”
When a local gun ordinance is in place for an airport, as is the case for North Carolina’s Charlotte International Airport, law enforcement may have wide discretion whether to charge a violator.
Where There’s No Will, There’s No Way
Based on testimony from Wallis and others, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a Democrat from New Jersey, introduced the Securing Air Travel Act, a fairly tepid piece of legislation that would mostly make incremental changes or codify policies already in place.
First, the law would require the TSA to install universal signage to alert passengers that firearms are generally prohibited in carry-on bags with heightened attention to the airports with the highest number of firearm interdictions. (Signage like this already exists at most, but not all, TSA checkpoints.)
Second, the law would require the TSA to carry out a public awareness campaign. (The agency addresses the issue through frequent press releases and social media posts.)
Third, the law would establish a minimum civil penalty for repeat and egregious violators. (There is currently some discretion in TSA guidance, with penalties generally increasing with each repeated violation or based upon other aggravating factors, such as whether the firearm was carried on the violator’s person, whether the firearm is loaded or if the safety is off. “The current fines which can range from $1,500 to $13,910 are clearly not serving as that deterrent,” Wallis testified in February, “and to my knowledge the maximum penalty is rarely if ever imposed. I believe TSA and Congress should consider significantly raising the civil penalties to make an actual impact.”)
Fourth, the law would codify TSA’s practice of suspending PreCheck eligibility for those caught with a gun at a checkpoint. (Currently, the length of the suspension “depends upon the seriousness of the offense and if there is a repeated history of violations,” according to the agency’s guidance. In his testimony, Wallis recommended that this should be revised to permanently withdraw any traveler from PreCheck who violates the firearms policy at the checkpoint.)
Finally, the law would increase Congress’s ability to conduct oversight on these issues by requiring reporting from TSA and the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
But even watered-down legislation has proven to be a hard sell in a country polarized over gun laws.
“Obviously, moving any kind of firearms legislation is very difficult to say the least,” said a committee staff member familiar with the bill. “Our intent was really to try to get to something that could get bipartisan agreement and then be much easier to move through the house and hopefully into law.” Yet in the end, most of the Republican members on the committee opposed the bill anyway.
Essentially, that puts the traveling public back to square one. “I would think that 20 years after 9/11, everyone should be aware that you can’t bring a gun on a plane,” said the committee staffer. “I don’t know what what else the TSA can do, beyond enforcing the fines and raising awareness as much as possible.”