TSA agents at Pittsburgh International Airport discovered a record number of firearms in carry-on bags at Pittsburgh International Airport in 2019.
On Dec. 23, local TSA agents found a loaded handgun at the airport’s security checkpoint, marking the 35th weapon confiscation for the year, a record high for the airport.
“It’s a trend we would like to see go in the opposite direction,” TSA public affairs spokesperson Lisa Farbstein said. “Unfortunately, it seems as if too many gun-owning travelers are not aware of the proper way to travel with their guns.”
The number of firearms found in carry-on bags is also increasing across the country. A record 4,239 guns were detected in 2018 at security checkpoints, a 7 percent increase from 2017. Farbstein noted that 86 percent of the weapons confiscated in 2018 were loaded. Nationwide figures for 2019 are still being tabulated, officials said.
Compared to airports of relative size, Pittsburgh International Airport is recording above-average numbers, with TSA agents at Cleveland Hopkins International detecting 22 firearms for the year and Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International agents finding 29 through Dec. 6, according to TSA.
The 35 weapon seizures at Pittsburgh International also surpassed other Pennsylvania airports, as TSA agents at Harrisburg International Airport detected seven firearms and the state’s largest airport, Philadelphia International, recorded 18 confiscations in 2019.
“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.
“It could be an expensive mistake,” said Farbstein.
Airline passengers may travel with guns, but they must be unloaded, packed in a hard case, declared 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.
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, Inspector Bill Palmer of the Allegheny County Police Department told Blue Sky News in August after a series of gun seizures at Pittsburgh International.
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 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.