More travelers are bringing firearms in their carry-on bags to Pittsburgh International Airport’s security checkpoints, an analysis by Blue Sky shows.
Local TSA agents have detected 24 guns at PIT’s security checkpoints so far this year, and it’s likely the number will surpass the 34 firearms confiscated in 2018, according to TSA public affairs spokesperson Lisa Farbstein.
“Obviously, you would like to see that trend go in the opposite direction, but every year, the number of firearms goes up,” she said.
The number of firearms found in carry-on bags is also increasing across the country. Last year saw a record 4,239 guns detected at security checkpoints, a 7 percent increase from 2017. Farbstein noted that 86 percent of the weapons confiscated last year were loaded.
Compared to airports of relative size, Pittsburgh International is slightly above average in terms of the number of detections in 2019. TSA agents have found 17 firearms so far this year at Cleveland Hopkins International and 19 at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International.
Photo: Beth Hollerich
“The most common excuse we hear is, ‘I forgot that I had my gun,’” Farbstein said. “When you go back to the point that 86 percent of (the firearms) are loaded, people are saying, ‘I forgot I had my loaded gun with me’ – which is shocking.”
Another explanation often heard by TSA agents is that the traveler had a spouse pack his or her bag.
“Neither of those excuses fly,” she added.
While it is legal to lawfully carry a firearm inside airports in Pennsylvania, any traveler found with a weapon at a TSA security checkpoint is subject to civil penalties, with first-time offenders facing up to a $4,000 fine.
Airline passengers may travel with guns, but they must be unloaded, packed in a hard case and checked, Farbstein said. Additionally, travelers must pack any ammunition in its original box inside of the locked case, which is stowed underneath the aircraft with checked luggage.
“It could be an expensive mistake,” said Farbstein.
When a gun is detected at an airport security checkpoint, TSA officers immediately shut down operations, stopping the X-ray machine conveyor belt until a police officer arrives to remove the bag from the belt.
“It slows down the line, it slows down the people you are traveling with, it slows down the people behind you because we need to move those people to another lane until it is removed from the X-ray machine,” said Farbstein.
Then it’s up to local police to determine if the item detected is an actual firearm and what to do next.
Police first secure the weapon and then begin an interview process with the individual, said Inspector Bill Palmer of the Allegheny County Police Department.
Each case results in immediate confiscation of the firearm as well as a federal investigation, with a U.S. attorney ultimately determining if the individual will face federal prosecution. Police will contact the FBI to inform them of the situation while the offender is detained and officers work to record more information through police reports, interviews and evidence collection.
Palmer explained that after the police gather the necessary information, the investigation is put on hold until addressed by the U.S. attorney.
“When we are done with the investigation, if that person is not facing state charges, then they are free to leave at that time,” said Palmer. “They can and often will make their flight.”
If the U.S. attorney declines to prosecute, police will contact the rightful owner of the weapon with instructions on how to get their firearm back, according to Palmer. The entire investigation process can take months.