Each Friday, before I close my office and head to Happy Hour, I check the TSA Blog for the Week in Review posting of the number of firearms (loaded and unloaded) and other prohibited items (inert explosives, big knives, anti-tank weapons, etc.) discovered at airport checkpoints.
You should too. The blog (and TSA’s Instagram account) offers an informal course on the wide variety of items TSA deems too dangerous to be allowed on airplanes, yet which travelers continue to bring to airports.
The numbers don’t spike on particular holidays or on Mondays but the tally of firearms, especially, keeps going up.
On June 4, 2014, for example, TSA reported that 18 firearms were discovered in carry-on bags around the country, breaking the previous record of 13 found in one day, set in 2013.
In early November, another record was broken. With two months still to go in the year, the number of firearms discovered at checkpoints had reached 1,855.
That blew 2014’s tally past the overall 2013 total of 1,813. By the close of business on December 15, this year’s tally had grown to 2,097.
“I think the rate is increasing because more and more people are carrying [weapons] throughout the country. It can actually be difficult for people who carry all the time because the gun becomes an extension of them, just like their cell phone and wallet,” said Jeff Price, author of Practical Aviation Security.
“Oops, I forgot that was in there,” is the most common explanation given by passengers found with firearms in a carry-on bag. But there are people who certainly know what they’re toting. “Some of these people are just tools trying to get one over on TSA and the system, but there are also those who may be affiliated with terrorist groups that decide to test the system to see what they can get through,” said Price.
Thanks to ever-more-sophisticated technology, TSA is confident it is catching 100 percent of all the firearms coming through checkpoints. But Todd Curtis, founder of AirSafe.com, pegs the find rate at closer to 90 percent. “The technology TSA has isn’t perfect,” said Curtis, “But in most cases, if someone is dense enough to try to take a weapon through the checkpoint they’ll be caught.”Whenever TSA does spot a firearm in a carry-on bag at a checkpoint, the screening process stops until law enforcement responds and retrieves the weapon. And it’s local laws, not the TSA, that determine if any criminal charges are filed against a passenger.
Criminal charges or not, passengers found with firearms at airport checkpoints are subject to civil penalties, ranging from $1,500 up to $11,000. In 2013, TSA assessed nearly $1.7 million in civil penalties for firearms discovered in carry-on bags nationwide.
What happens to the firearms also depends on local laws. While local law enforcement allows TSA to photograph firearms (and other prohibited items) discovered at checkpoints, “TSA doesn’t take possession of any firearms,” said TSA spokesman Ross Feinstein, “Local law enforcement might confiscate the weapon as evidence or give it back the passenger to return it to their home or to put it in their vehicle.”
Beyond firearms, of course, TSA officers encounter an extremely wide variety of other prohibited items at airport checkpoints, including machetes, hatchets, swords, giant scissors, brass knuckles, cannonballs, bear repellant and, this past October, an unloaded cannon.
“Maybe someone has a lucky inert grenade they brought back from some war, or a nice cane was given to them and they forgot that the thing is actually a sword,” said Price, “It’s the people that are carrying stuff like chainsaws that make me wonder.”