TSA is finding more guns in carry-ons this year: U.S. airports with the highest rates.

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2022 could break the record for most guns found in airplane carry-ons: The U.S. airports with the highest rates

On Aug. 16, a passenger at Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport was stopped by a Transportation Security Administration officer for trying to bring an unloaded gun with four bullets onto a plane in his carry-on luggage. It was the first time this year the TSA found a gun at the Virginia airport, but at other airports, it’s become all too common.

The number of guns the TSA has found at airport security checkpoints has steadily increased since it started collecting the data in 2005 — the total that first year was 660. Last year, that number reached a record high of nearly 6,000 firearms — about 86 percent of which were loaded.

2022 is on the way to beating that record. Looking at the data through June of this year, the TSA had already found at least 300 more guns than it had at last year’s halfway mark, bringing the latest total to more than 3,000 firearms — an average of 17 per day — at airport checkpoints across the country, according to a July press release.

Busier airports don’t always equal more guns

Interestingly, higher traffic volume — found at the major airports like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York — doesn’t necessarily correspond with higher gun totals, said Mark Howell, a TSA spokesperson.

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It’s more about a state’s carry laws, says Howell — meaning that where you’re really seeing the guns pop up is at airports in Georgia, Texas, Tennessee and Arizona, places with unrestricted concealed-carry laws. “The Southeast, particularly, is a hotbed for guns,” said Howell.

Concealed-carry laws are determined on a state-by-state basis. Half of the states require a permit, while the remaining states do not.

Even of the states requiring a permit, 17 are considered “shall issue” states, which means the state has almost no discretion to deny permits to those who meet the basic requirements. Each state’s status is available here.

It was in these “shall issue” states and states with no permits required that the most guns were found.

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When it comes to ‘why’ more guns are being found at TSA checkpoints there is no one answer

“Determining causality is nearly impossible,” said Sheldon H. Jacobson, a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has studied aviation security for decades. “You can only make observations on relationships.”

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One argument that the TSA espouses is that gun ownership is up; and based on FBI background check data, it has increased to such an extent over the past few years, it could be called a surge. The TSA’s logic is that guns may be cropping up at airports simply because there are more of them.

Jacobson said that, while it is possible that a larger number of guns has contributed to more guns found in carry-ons, it’s difficult to say for sure, since the percentage of the population with guns may not be equally represented among those flying.

A different set of passengers

That said, the spike could, in part, be due to a different mix of passengers flying during the covid pandemic, Jacobson added.

Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior adviser to the Rand Corporation president and expert on terrorism and peacekeeping and stability operations, said that this trend in rising gun detection rates may have accelerated during the pandemic, when people dealt with their anxiety around societal stability by acquiring firearms.

According to analysis of the National Firearms Survey, about 7.5 million U.S. adults, most of whom had lived in homes without guns, became new gun owners between 2019 and 2021.

Last October, Melissa Chan reported in Time that many passengers were flying for the first time since the start of the pandemic. “They are leaving home in a stressed state without focusing on exactly where their gun is,” TSA spokesperson Sari Koshetz told the magazine.

TSA agents with more time

Another possibility, says Jacobson, is that with fewer people flying during covid, agents, who weren’t overburdened by such a high volume of passengers, were able to really focus on screening the ones who were there. The theory being that once air traffic volume picked up again, the high detection rate might drop off.

In 2020, the rate of guns found per one million passengers screened nearly doubled, despite the lower flight traffic, from roughly 5.3 the year before, to 10.2, Grid analysis found.

In 2021, there was no discernible decrease in how many guns TSA agents found when air travel traffic numbers began recovering. For 2022, the numbers are inconclusive.

Jenkins said this theory could offer a partial explanation, but doesn’t explain the full story, given that the rate of guns being found at security checkpoints has steadily increased over time. If the uptick is partially due to the TSA achieving higher accuracy rates, that implies the TSA has missed weapons passing through its checkpoints. And while there are “no estimates” for the number of guns that have gotten by the administration, Howell did say it is “extremely rare.”


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In 2017, undercover investigators from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General were able to sneak fake weapons past the TSA, who missed them an estimated 70 percent of the time.

But the actual rate of weapons missed is likely not quite as high as the one suggested, Jenkins said, because the investigators have an unusually high skill level compared to the average passenger.

Is the rise in gun rates cause for concern?

There’s no discernible increase that we’re seeing in terrorist activity in the U.S. that is corresponding with the growing number of guns detected, said Jenkins.

He said he suspects most of the passengers who are carrying a firearm shove it into their carry-on or purse last minute because they don’t want it confiscated.

Jenkins, who recently co-authored a paper for the Mineta Transportation Institute on patterns of violence in public surface transit, said on a phone call with Grid that it’s also important to look at the rise in guns at airport checkpoints as part of a broader societal problem — that while there is no correlation with terrorist activities, it has coincided with “an increase in unprovoked violence” at airports.

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Since the pandemic began, airlines saw a spike in unruly passenger incidents, as suggested by the increase in investigations.

“It parallels with a problem that the airlines are having, and that is a problem of edgier passengers,” said Jenkins. We may be seeing this issue crop up on transportation because it’s a venue where many strangers come together and incidents are tracked, he said.

That said, the uptick in guns being detected is not necessarily a reason to panic, since the TSA has 20 layers of airport security, said Jacobson. “All of these layers collectively work together to produce a safe and secure air system,” he said. “Any one layer will never be 100 percent foolproof, because if it was, you wouldn’t need the other layers.”

“They would be superfluous, and they aren’t.”

It’s not always illegal to have a gun when you fly

There are ways that passengers are permitted to travel with a firearm. They must, for instance, be unloaded, packed properly in checked baggage, and declared at the ticket counter.

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Failing to do so, aside from being a safety risk, becomes an operational nightmare for airports. Smaller airports might lose a third of their operating capacity if a lane were shut down, Howell said.

When a gun appears, local law enforcement is called in. The passenger may receive a citation, get arrested, or get their PreCheck membership revoked by the TSA. Other actions may be taken, depending on state and local laws.

And a word from those who get caught ...

What do the passengers who stow guns in their carry-ons say? The No. 1 excuse TSA agents hear, said Howell, is that the passenger forgot they had a gun in their carry-on bag.

“It becomes a routine,” he said. “You grab your keys and your wallet, and, in those states, you grab your firearm, and you head out for your day.”

Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.


  • Anna Deen
    Anna Deen

    Data Visualization Reporter

    Anna Deen is a data visualization reporter at Grid.