The Transportation Security Administration has been checking carry-on bags for weapons at U.S. airports since shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that you can’t bring a gun onto an airplane.
But the TSA says the number of guns found at airport security checkpoints continues to grow every year. Last year’s record of 3,957 firearms found in carry-on bags nationwide will be eclipsed again in 2018, said TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz.
At Raleigh-Durham International Airport, 61 passengers have been found with guns by the TSA so far this year, with the busy holiday travel season still ahead. That’s up from 51 firearms in all of 2017, Koshetz said.
“This escalating trend is both disturbing and dangerous, as most of the guns have been loaded,” she wrote in an email. “You see how passengers fling their bags onto the X-ray belts. An accidental discharge could have tragic results.”
Nationally, 84 percent of guns found last year were loaded.
When TSA agents find a gun at RDU, they call airport police, who confiscate the weapon and determine whether to press charges, said airport spokeswoman Toni Herrera-Bast. Options range from a civil citation to a felony charge, depending on the circumstances.
“Unfortunately, when passengers bring firearms and other prohibited items to the TSA checkpoint, it at best disrupts checkpoint operations and at worst has the potential to cause a significant law enforcement response causing stress and anxiety for all our customers,” Herrera-Bast wrote in an email.
Few people are prosecuted for having a gun at a TSA checkpoint at RDU, said Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman. Most of them have no history of trying to sneak weapons through security and already face civil fines from the TSA of “multiple thousands of dollars,” which is what any criminal court would levy for a misdemeanor, Freeman said in an interview. So most cases are dismissed as long as the gun owner takes a firearm safety or concealed carry permit course.
“Generally speaking, the fines that TSA imposes are heavy enough that people don’t want to do that twice,” Freeman said.
Most of the people caught with firearms at checkpoints say they simply forgot the weapons were in their bags, Koshetz said. Country music star and Garner native Scotty McCreery said he accidentally left a loaded Smith and Wesson handgun in the backpack that he carried from a firing range to RDU to catch a flight in July 2017. McCreery was cited with a misdemeanor and allowed to get the next available flight without the gun.
To avoid being surprised by a forgotten firearm, the TSA suggests people unpack their bags before packing for their next trip.
“Some passengers have used the same suitcase for a previous road trip and had their gun tucked neatly into a zippered compartment,” she wrote. “They missed it. We didn’t.”
It’s not clear why the TSA is stopping more passengers with guns at airports. Koshetz doesn’t believe that TSA screeners have gotten better at finding them. Rather, she says, a growing number of passengers are being careless.
“As we have gotten further away from the tragedy of 9/11, more and more passengers are not focusing on what is inside their suitcases before heading to the airport,” she wrote.
Passenger growth may explain some of the increase, though not much. While the number of airline passengers in the U.S. rose 10 percent in the decade ending last year, the number of firearms found at checkpoints has risen 392 percent.
Another explanation may be that there are simply more guns out there. Mass shootings and increasing calls for gun control spurred sales, particularly during the Obama administration, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. The number of FBI background checks, an indication of firearms sales trends, peaked in 2016 at 27.5 million, more than double what they were in 2008.
Freeman said law enforcement agencies have seen other evidence that people forget about guns they buy but seldom use. Handguns are commonly reported stolen from glove compartments or under the seats of cars that were left unlocked overnight, she said.
The TSA has found 165 firearms in carry-on bags at North Carolina airports so far this year, led by Charlotte Douglas International Airport with 69. The total last year statewide was 158.
It is possible to fly with a firearm, but it must be unloaded and in a locked, hard-sided container as checked baggage. Passengers must let the airline know about the firearm or ammunition when checking the bag at the ticket counter. For more information, go to www.tsa.gov/travel/transporting-firearms-and-ammunition.