The Transportation Security Administration says it is on pace to set a record this year for the number of guns intercepted at airport checkpoints.
In one sense, that is not big news. According to TSA, the number of guns discovered in carry-on bags has increased steadily since at least 2009, except for 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic restricted flying. TSA statistics show 976 firearms were discovered in 2009 and 5,972 last year.
TSA says agents have intercepted 4,600 so far this year, a rate that would set a new record by year’s end.
While the rate of increase has been steady over recent years, a closer look produces a conclusion that is a bit more troubling. If you set aside 2020 (the pandemic outlier), the number of gun interceptions per passenger roughly doubled between 2019 and 2021. In 2019, TSA detected one firearm on every 197,358 passengers; last year, that number dropped to 97,999.
More Gun Ownership
In part, at least, this increase is likely because more people have been buying guns in the last two years. Uncertainty over the pandemic and the unrest following the murder of George Floyd prompted many Americans to buy guns for the first time.
One study found that 18% of U.S. households purchased a gun between March 2020 and March of this year, increasing the percentage of adults who live in a household with guns to 46%. In that same time, one in 20 Americans purchased a gun for the first time.
These new owners may not be aware of gun restrictions. In addition, more and more states have adopted permitless-carry laws in recent years – in January, Alabama will become the 25th state to do so. And permit-less carry might mislead people into thinking they can pack a gun into their carry-on bags.
While guns can’t be carried onto planes, they may be packed into checked luggage if they are unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container. TSA says travelers must also declare the packed gun when they check in at the ticket counter.
Two Layers of Penalties
Travelers who try to carry a gun onto a flight can pay a steep price for their misstep, especially if the firearm is loaded.
The TSA has its own penalties, which can be a fine of up to $14,000 and loss of PreCheck membership, which provides expedited security screening, for five years.
But that’s just the first step. The second belongs to law enforcement.
If a TSA agent nabs a traveler with a gun in their carry-on, they must contact law enforcement. At that point, the traveler’s fortunes vary considerably, depending on what state they are in. In Texas, law enforcement will probably ask the traveler to step out of line, lock their gun in their car, and then return. In New York, an offender can expect to be handcuffed and taken away.
The penalties also vary depending on whether the gun owner has a permit. In Florida, for instance, a person with a concealed-carry permit who is stopped at an airport checkpoint could face a second-degree misdemeanor charge. A passenger who has no permit for the gun could be charged with a felony.
If you feel you must travel with a gun, make sure you know the law – both TSA and in the states where you will be flying out of and into – before you embark. If you don’t, a misstep could be costly.
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