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'Alarming trend': TSA reports increase of travelers bringing guns to checkpoints

TSA officers caught a Tennessee man trying to board a plane at Reagan National Airport with this loaded .380 handgun. Thursday morning, December 3, 2020. (TSA)
TSA officers caught a Tennessee man trying to board a plane at Reagan National Airport with this loaded .380 handgun. Thursday morning, December 3, 2020. (TSA)
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Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport caught a loaded handgun at one of the airport checkpoints on Sunday, July 11, bringing the total number of firearms detected at the airport this year to 14, matching the total caught in 2019. It was the second gun caught within four days.

“It’s only mid-July and already our TSA officers have prevented 14 handguns from being carried onto flights, which is what we saw in all 12 months of 2019, prior to the pandemic,” said Scott T. Johnson, TSA Federal Security Director for the airport.

When you take into account the fact that checkpoint volume at Reagan National Airport is still below pre-pandemic levels, seeing an increase in the number of travelers who are bringing their guns to our checkpoints is an alarming trend.

ALSO READ | Man attempts to bring loaded 9mm handgun through security at DCA


Johnson pointed out that passengers are permitted to travel with firearms in checked baggage if they are properly packaged and declared at check-in with the airline.

  • Firearms must be unloaded, packed in a hard-sided case, locked, and packed separately from ammunition.
  • Ammunition and firearm parts, including firearm frames, receivers, clips and magazines are also prohibited in carry-on baggage and must be checked.
  • Any type of replica firearm is prohibited in carry-on baggage and must be transported in checked luggage.
  • Firearm possession laws vary by state and locality; therefore, travelers should familiarize themselves with state and local firearm laws for each point of travel prior to departure.

On Sunday, TSA officers caught a Georgia man with a .38 caliber handgun loaded with 10 bullets, including one in the chamber. On Thursday, July 8, the TSA officers caught a Maryland man with a .40 caliber handgun loaded with six bullets. Each man was cited by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Police, who confiscated the weapons. In addition, both individuals face a stiff federal financial civil penalty for bringing a gun to an airport security checkpoint.

RELATED | Travelers warned about guns in luggage, again, as incidents spiked during pandemic in 2020


  • BWI - 15
  • IAD - 7
  • DCA - 14

Americans are buying more firearms at a faster rate.

Firearm sales hit unprecedented levels in 2020. The FBI, in fact, said the agency conducted a record 39.7 million firearm-related background checks last year.

The number shattered the previous record of 15.7 million, which was set in 2016.

NSSF estimated that 8.4 million, accounting for 40% of all firearm purchases in 2020, were first-time buyers.

Bringing a gun to an airport checkpoint carries a federal civil penalty because TSA reserves the right to issue a civil penalty to travelers who have guns and gun parts with them at a checkpoint. Civil penalties for bringing a handgun into a checkpoint can stretch into thousands of dollars, depending on mitigating circumstances. This applies to travelers with or without concealed gun carry permits because even though an individual may have a concealed carry permit, it does not allow for a firearm to be carried onto an airplane.

Firearm possession laws vary by state and locality and passengers should do their homework to make sure that they are not violating any local firearm laws. Travelers should also contact their airline as they may have additional requirements for traveling with firearms and ammunition.

ALSO READ | Va. man with loaded gun at BWI Airport arrested, 4th gun caught by TSA in last week

Nationwide, TSA officers detected 3,257 firearms on passengers or their carry-on bags at checkpoints last year, although the total number of passengers screened at airport checkpoints across the country fell by 500 million compared to 2019 due to the pandemic. The result was that twice as many firearms per million passengers screened were detected at checkpoints in 2020 compared to 2019.

In 2020, TSA caught approximately 10 firearms per million passengers as compared to about five firearms per million passengers in 2019. Of the guns caught by TSA in 2020, about 83 percent were loaded.

The recommended federal civil penalty for an unloaded firearm starts at $2,050 and it starts at $4,100 for a loaded gun. The penalty can go up to the statutory maximum of more than $10,250 per violation, depending on the circumstances.

In addition to financial civil penalties, individuals who violate rules regarding traveling with firearms will have their trusted traveler status and TSA PreCheck™ expedited screening benefits revoked for a period of time. The duration of the disqualification will depend upon the seriousness of the offense and if there is a repeated history of violations.

“Even more concerning is that 80 percent of the firearms coming into the checkpoint are loaded and it’s just an accident waiting to happen. Travelers need to know that if they bring a gun to the security checkpoint, regardless of whether it is in a handbag, knapsack, roller-bag, or strapped to their belt, it will be an inconvenient and expensive mistake on their part,” said TSA Administrator David Pekoske.

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The number one reason passengers give as to why they were carrying a firearm at a security checkpoint is that they simply forgot.

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