Why are so many people bringing guns to the airport?

Jan 2, 2022

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We get it. After so long off the road, a lot of air travelers are out of practice when it comes to remembering what is allowed or not allowed in carry-on bags.

So we recommend reviewing the Transportation Security Administration’s 3-1-1 liquids rule explainer and the agency’s What Can I Bring web tool before your next trip.

Baby food and bread? TSA says yes.  Selfie sticks? Sewing machines? Yes, and Yes.

Snow globes? It depends.

And what about firearms and ammunition?

Frequent travelers will say that’s a trick question. The rule is — and has always been — no guns are allowed in carry-ons. (You knew that, right?) But for some reason, this year a surprising number of travelers have been overlooking that rule.

In mid-October, in a year when fewer overall passengers have been traveling due to the pandemic, TSA reported that its officers had found 4,495 firearms at airport security checkpoints. That, TSA said, not only exceeded the previous record of 4,432 firearms found at checkpoints in the full calendar year of 2019, but it also established a 20-year record.

And there were still three months left in the calendar year.

(Screenshot courtesy TSA)

Guess what happened next? You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the tally of firearms found at airport checkpoints nationwide has continued to ratchet up.

On December 21, TSA shared that its officers had already found more than 5,700 firearms at airport checkpoints nationwide this year. “And about 85% of those [firearms] were loaded,” TSA spokesman R. Carter Langston told TPG.

Many passengers traveling during the Christmas holiday also brought their guns along. TSA said its officers stopped guns on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the day after Christmas. So, when TSA releases its official end-of-year firearm count, sometime in January, it’s a sure bet that the tally will be quite a bit higher.

What’s fueling the flurry of firearms at airport checkpoints this year?

There are a variety of theories about what’s behind the uptick in passengers arriving at airport checkpoints with firearms in their carry-on bags. But “the general consensus seems to be that we have far more leisure passengers traveling who are not as familiar with the rules,” says aviation security expert Jeff Price. “They think they can either circumvent the rules or that the rules do not apply to them because they might have a concealed carry permit.”

Or, he says, it may be because they aren’t frequent flyers. “They aren’t in the habit of checking to make sure they don’t have a firearm on them when they go to the airport, as a much more experienced flyer does.”

Adding to the rise in guns at airports is the fact that more people in the United States have guns. There has been a spike in firearm sales since the start of the pandemic. And most (5.4 million) of the 7.5 million people who bought guns between January 2019 and April 2021 lived in homes that didn’t have guns before, according to a report in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Check what you’re packing

Firearms are allowed in checked baggage, but only if they’re unloaded, packed in a locked, hard case separate from any ammunition, and declared to the airline.

(Photo courtesy TSA)

Passengers who show up at a TSA checkpoint with a gun in a pocket, a purse, a bag, a shoe, a boot, or in any carry-on item may be cited and/or arrested by local police and fined up to $13,910 by TSA, which will also revoke a scofflaw’s PreCheck privileges.

Bottom line: “Bringing a firearm to a TSA checkpoint represents a costly mistake and an unnecessary risk to TSA employees and fellow travelers,” says TSA’s Langston.

Featured image by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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