The U.S. Has Already Smashed Its Record for Firearms Found at Airports This Year

A police officer stands with his submachine gun as travelers walk past at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta on November 17. Reuters

The United States has a new record already on the books for 2015, one that should pique the interest of those concerned with air-travel security and the proliferation of Americans carrying concealed guns.

As of December 10, a total of 2,471 firearms had been found in carry-on bags at airport checkpoints, according to weekly data published by the Transportation Security Administration. That compares with 2,212 guns for all of 2014—which itself marked a 22 percent increase over 2013. There's been a sharp jump in the decade since 2005, when the total number of guns found was 660.

Most caught with guns in carry-on bags say they "simply forgot they had these items," the TSA said on its website. The agency can assess fines of $11,000 "in egregious cases," including for repeat offenders, says Bruce Anderson, a TSA spokesman. In general, though, "they receive a notice of fine of about $3,000," he adds. The police are also notified, but depending on state and local firearms laws, violators can simply be advised to take guns back to their vehicles. In localities with tough gun-carry laws, they could face criminal charges. More than 80 percent of guns turning up at airport checkpoints are loaded, the TSA said.

These statistics reflect only guns found through routine inspections of carry-on bags. An untold number of guns are likely passing through airport security and carried undetected onto planes in passengers' bags. One indication of this came last December, when Brooklyn prosecutors charged several men, including a Delta Air Lines employee, who were said to have bypassed security and smuggled 153 guns in passenger cabins of 17 Delta flights from Atlanta to New York.

Another indication came in the spring, when the Department of Homeland Security said that inspectors managed to bring guns and other weapons undetected through security in 67 of 70 tests at major U.S. airports.

No one with known criminal intent has been found carrying a gun at airport checkpoints, and finding a gun on a passenger "does not mean they had bad intentions," the TSA said on its weekly blog.

Of course, the rising numbers of guns found at checkpoints could in part show that the TSA is "getting better at finding guns," says Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Still, he said, the increases also indicate that "more people are bringing guns on trips because they think they need to have a gun with them 24/7."

Overall, the numbers of concealed-handgun permits—allowing gun owners to carry a weapon in a backpack or briefcase, for example—are steadily increasing. "Over the past year, 1.7 million additional new permits have been issued—a 15 percent increase in just one single year," the Crime Prevention Research Center, a group that supports right-to-carry measures and opposes tighter gun-control laws, said in a report released in July. "Five states now have more than 10 percent of their adult population with concealed handgun permits," that report stated.

Paranoia following news of mass shootings and extremist violence drives more people to obtain concealed-firearms permits, which puts ever more guns in pockets, purses and backpacks, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence's Everitt says. Meanwhile, a Gallup poll conducted in October found that 56 percent of Americans agree that the U.S. would be safer if more people "were allowed to carry concealed weapons, if they passed a criminal background check and training course."

Purchasing a firearm in the U.S. through a licensed gun dealer requires a background check; 21 million such checks were logged by the FBI last year, compared with 8.7 million in 2004. But "background checks" are fighting words to gun interests led in perpetual battle by the National Rifle Association, which warns members that toughening existing background-check procedures would lead to a slippery slope toward creating a comprehensive national gun-registry database. This is seen by the group as a precursor to the federal government confiscating citizens' firearms.

"Expanding background check systems and allowing records to be kept on people who pass background checks to acquire guns would be steps toward transforming NICS into the national gun registry that gun control supporters have wanted for more than a hundred years," the NRA says in a position paper, referring to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System maintained by the FBI.

Founded in the days after the Civil War to promote civilian firearms training and marksmanship, the NRA has evolved into a lobbying group with far-reaching political power to thwart attempts to strengthen gun-control laws. The group does say it maintains a national network of instructors and gun-range safety experts that "develops safe, ethical, responsible shooters." Yet developing ever more "shooters" carrying concealed weapons is troubling, gun-control supporters maintain.

"Just this year, Kansas and Maine changed their laws to allow concealed guns to be carried in public without a permit," joining four other states with similar laws, says Laura Cutilletta, the senior staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "Studies show that carrying a gun does not make you safer—and an increase in guns carried in airports puts us all at risk," she adds.

Guns can be legally transported on airplanes in checked bags, after notifying the airline in advance, the TSA says.

There does seem to be general agreement, even among supporters of increased gun ownership, that gun owners, including those heading to the airport, should not be inadvertently packing heat along with whatever else they pack in their carry-on bags.

"It is our responsibility to know where our firearms are at all times," a spokesman for, a group that has an active social media presence promoting what it calls "responsible and legal" concealed carrying of firearms, tells Newsweek. "It is simply careless and dangerous to simply misplace a firearm. The bottom line is: Your firearm is your responsibility."