Skift Take

The admonition to not bring a loaded weapon into a highly pressurized airborne vessel couldn't be stronger, yet more passengers than ever can't seem to remember to be responsible. As the U.S. focuses on gun safety this week, rules and procedures at airports deserve a look.

Travelers in the United States are trying to bring more loaded weapons than ever onto airplanes. On average, four travelers per day are caught by Transportation and Security Administration agents attempting to pass through security with a weapon  — and more than three out of four of these guns are loaded.

As of Friday, December 14 the TSA had found 1,464 handguns. Of these, 1,242 were loaded. At the current pace, the TSA will likely cross the 1,500 mark on Christmas Eve, based on data collected and analyzed by Skift. This will be the highest number of guns discovered since the TSA was created following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

The second half of 2012 has seen an increase over gun activity in the first six months: In July On the National Security Beat, a project of Medill Journalism School, reported that 697 guns had been found, 170 of which were not only loaded but had rounds in their chambers.

Out of all U.S. airports, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport had the most guns confiscated at 90. Atlanta’s airport is the busiest in the nation, so the high number of guns can be expected. But compared to the number two airport, Atlanta’s numbers are high: Chicago O’Hare International, the nation’s second busiest airport is ranked 43 in number of guns confiscated in 2012 with only 10 seized.

Below are the top 20 airports by confiscations and their ranking by passenger traffic in August of 2012 (see full table at this link):

Airport name Guns seized Aug. 2012 traffic rank
Hartsfield – Jackson Atlanta International 90 1
Dallas/Fort Worth International 78 3
Phoenix Sky Harbor International 53 6
George Bush Intercontinental/Houston 49 11
Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International 41 21
Orlando International 36 10
Denver International 36 4
Dallas Love Field 34 35
Nashville International 32 34
Houston – William P Hobby 32 32
Austin-Bergstrom International 31 26
Tampa International 29 27
Seattle-Tacoma International 29 13
Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County 27 14
Portland International 26 30
Charlotte/Douglas International 23 8
San Antonio International 21 45
McCarran International 21 7
Lambert-St Louis International 20 31
Indianapolis International 19 48

Everything’s bigger in Texas

As numbers go, though, Texas is the nation’s real leader. Two of the state’s airports are in the list of the top four offenders — Dallas/Fort Worth International and George Bush in Houston. Despite only having two airports in the top 30 busiest by enplanements, Texas airports have six in the top 20 in terms of guns seized. The standout is Dallas’ Love Field, which is the only airport in the top 35 busiest where agents have found more than 7 guns per one million enplanements.

Chart: Airports with 10 or more gun seizures in 2012. Yellow dots represent airports with 0-2 guns found per one million enplanements; purple 2-5 guns, and red pins 5+ guns/million. Chart based on data from the TSA and mapped by Skift.

Why not just check the gun?

Depending on the states passengers are traveling between and what type of gun they have, passengers are allowed to bring guns and ammunition on planes, just so long as the unloaded weapons are stored in a hard-locked case in checked luggage and the airline is notified in advance. Some passengers, of course, find that prohibition too limiting. A passenger in Portland, Ore. this summer who was told he couldn’t bring his .22 caliber rifle in his checked luggage attempted to hide the gun in a planter at the airport so he could get it back upon his return.

A TSA official told ABC News in an interview last year “We don’t keep stats on why passengers bring prohibited items to airports but, anecdotally, passengers typically say they forgot it was in their bag.”

What happens when you’re caught?

Not much.

“All we’re permitted to do is confiscate the weapon and call law enforcement agents, who then will take custody of it and determine whether or not you’re arrested,” a TSA official told the New York Times earlier this fall. Local laws will either result in the ticketed passenger taking the gun back home before traveling or, if they are in a state with more restrictive laws, heading to jail.

Many gun owners are aware of laws in their own municipality, but the rise of gun ownership over the last four years has resulted in what firearms experts have described as a less-educated group of owner/travelers. This is demonstrated by, among other things, the steady rise of guns discovered at TSA airport checkpoints.

Confiscated items that are not weapons are sold by the states that they’re collected in. Except in states where the weapon found does not correspond to a concealed carry or other type of permit, the weapon is returned to the owner who is then not permitted to fly until it is removed from the airport.

Even in cases where it appears the flyer may have made an effort to conceal the weapon the TSA will allow the passenger to fly once the gun has been confiscated. In a well-publicized case this summer, a man traveling with his four-year-old son was stopped after a disassembled .40 caliber semiautomatic was found concealed in stuffed animals. After agents decided the weapon was a side effect of a domestic dispute the man was allowed to continue flying.


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Tags: guns, security, tsa

Photo credit: A .380 semiautomatic pistol, the most-commonly confiscated gun at TSA checkpoints. Art Bromage /

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