Once a rare occurrence, Transportation Security Administration officers at Pittsburgh International Airport are now stopping passengers trying to bring guns on planes nearly once a week, on average.
Warnings, public service announcements and fines apparently have had little impact. Nor have blunt statements from the airport’s TSA director to keep some legally licensed handgun owners from attempting to take firearms into the secured, public area of the airport.
“The prevalence of guns being brought to our checkpoints by travelers must stop,” PIT Federal Security Director Karen Keys-Turner said bluntly. “Guns are not permitted to be carried onto planes, even if the passenger has a concealed carry permit. Guns have not been allowed on planes long before the TSA was established. That’s no secret. It’s common sense.”
Keys-Turner and the TSA issued that statement on Feb. 15 after airport screeners caught their fourth gun of the month. Firearms were also discovered at the checkpoint on Feb. 4, 8 and 12. And two more were stopped Feb. 25 to cap the monthly total at six.
A loaded gun seized at Pittsburgh International Airport’s security checkpoint in February. (Photo courtesy of TSA)
To put that number in perspective, a total of 35 guns were caught in 2019. Twenty-one guns were found in all of 2020, which would seem to be an improvement, except passenger traffic was down 61 percent because of the pandemic. When calculated by guns caught per million passengers, the rate doubled in 2020, and it seems the trend is continuing in 2021.
“Passenger volume is about 50 percent lower, and so common sense would tell you that the number (of guns) caught should correspond. But common sense has gone out the window,” said TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein.
In fact, the catch rate has been swinging upward nationally for a dozen years and took a huge spike during the pandemic. A record 4,432 guns were caught at checkpoints at U.S. airports in 2019, followed by 3,257 last year even though 500 million fewer passengers were screened, according to TSA. That’s about 10 firearms per million passengers screened, the highest in the agency’s history, as compared to about 5 per million passengers the year before.
“What is equally troubling is that 83 percent of those guns were loaded,” Farbstein said.
Another constant is the nature of excuses travelers provide.
“The common excuses we hear are, ‘I forgot that I had my gun with me,’ or ‘My spouse packed my bag,’” Farbstein said. “They knew where their wallet and keys were, but not their loaded gun?”
Excuses don’t fly with Farbstein, the TSA, or, apparently, the Columbus, Ohio City Council, which passed an ordinance last year to clamp down on absent-minded gun owners. The ordinance, sponsored by Councilman Mitchell Brown, allows for criminal trespass, a second-degree misdemeanor and a $750 fine if the violator’s actions are deemed reckless.
Still, the TSA staff at John Glenn Columbus International Airport intercepted a gun at the checkpoint for the fourth time on Feb. 15. The airport recorded a total of 24 such incidents last year and 29 in 2019.
If you are a licensed gun owner, Farbstein offered a couple of tips to help when traveling through U.S. airports. It all starts, she said, with knowing before going.
Since gun laws differ throughout the U.S., become familiar with those to where you are traveling. Secondly, guns are not permitted in the cabin of airplanes at all—even if you have a concealed carry permit. Finally, guns are not permitted in the secure area of any U.S. airport.
“There is a right way and wrong way to travel with a firearm,” Farbstein said. “It needs to be unloaded, packed in a hard-sided, locked case. Then it should be checked in at the airline ticket counter to make sure it is transported in the belly of the plane.”
The TSA issues a civil penalty to travelers who have guns at a checkpoint, with typical first offenses for a loaded handgun starting at $4,100, but could go as high as $13,669, depending on the circumstances.
When a gun is detected at the checkpoint, Allegheny County Police first secure the weapon and then begin an interview process with the individual, police have said.
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.
Police have said that after the necessary information is gathered, the investigation is put on hold until addressed by the U.S. attorney. If the person is not facing state charges, they are free to leave.
If the U.S. attorney declines to prosecute, police will then contact the owner of the weapon with instructions on how to get their firearm back. The entire investigation process can take months.
Farbstein also suggests that to avoid any possibility of a firearm, or any other illegal item for that matter, creating a problem for you at the checkpoint, to start packing with a completely empty bag.
“You may have not used a bag for a while and two months later you take it on a trip. You’ve forgotten all that you put in it, like in those small Velcro pockets many bags have. You forget. So, we recommend start with an empty bag. It’s too risky.”