TSA sees ‘concerning’ rise in number of firearms at security checkpoints – and most are loaded

“I forgot.”

That’s the number one reason Transportation Security Administration agents say they hear at airport security checkpoints when they catch a passenger with a firearm.

Of the 5,832 firearms stopped so far this year, as of Monday, nearly 88% were loaded, according to the TSA. The total number is quickly catching up to last year’s record of 5,972 – or approximately 17 guns a day.

The news comes ahead of the busiest travel time of the year – when nearly 55 million Americans are estimated to be traveling this Thanksgiving, according to AAA – just shy of pre-pandemic levels. 

“It’s very concerning because firearms are prohibited in the checkpoint – and certainly onboard the aircraft,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske told CNBC. “We’ve seen an increase nationally…  [and in] parts of the country where open carry and concealed weapons permits are higher, [that] generally indicates we’ll find higher weapons at our checkpoints.”

Top 5 airports for TSA gun catches, through Nov. 21

  1. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL) 407
  2. Dallas/Fort-Worth International Airport (DFW) 340
  3. Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) 268
  4. Nashville International Airport (BNA) 185
  5. Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (PHX) 172

It’s legal to travel with a firearm – but only if it’s declared with the airline before the flight, unloaded and packed correctly inside checked luggage. According to the TSA, passengers caught with guns were fined $52 million in civil penalties over the past three years.

“I have total confidence in our transportation security officers to stop these,” said Steve Wood, the Federal Security Director for the TSA in Tennessee. “But we need the public’s help in not bringing them.”

Atlanta tops the list because it’s such a large airport, Pekoske said. “There’s just more people moving through Atlanta airport.”

To date, Atlanta is 100 shy of last year’s record of 507. However, three of the top 5 airports on the list – DFW, IAH and BNA – have already broken records for the number of firearms stopped at security checkpoints in 2022.

Just last month, Nashville’s airport broke a record with the number of firearms found in a single year at 170, beating last year’s record of 163. That number has since jumped to 185.

“We’ve moved up on the list – from number 6 to number 5 and then number 4,” Wood said.

Part of the reason, he says, is that in July 2021, the firearm laws changed in Tennessee to not require a permit to carry a firearm. “During that first month we saw 25 firearms – which was the biggest month we’ve ever had,” Wood told CNBC.

According to TSA officials the number of firearms intercepted at Nashville is 2.5 times higher than the national rate – or, one firearm for nearly 37,799 passengers screened. 

It is not a federal criminal offense to bring a firearm to a checkpoint. However, the agency has the authority to impose a federal civil penalty against those who do.

According to the TSA, getting caught with a firearm carries a civil fine of $1,500. If the gun is loaded, that figure jumps to $3,000. For repeat offenders, the fines can go as high as nearly $13,910.

“It’s a very expensive mistake, and it’s a very time consuming mistake as well,” Pekoske said. “It’s very likely that you will not be able to fly on the flight you had originally reserved, and sometimes passengers aren’t even able to fly that day, depending on the flight schedules out of the airport.”

(With inputs from CNBC)