WASHINGTON — U.S. House members wrestled Tuesday with how to address a spike in travelers trying to bring firearms through airport screening points in carry-on bags.
During 2021, Transportation Security Administration officers detected 5,972 firearms at checkpoints, 86% of which were loaded. That number was up from the previous record of 4,432 discovered in 2019.
As Policy Watch reported in January, North Carolina airports discovered a total of 254 firearms in travelers’ carry-on luggage last year. Several airports in the state saw their gun confiscation numbers double or triple from what they were in 2020. Most of these firearms were loaded as well.
TSA Regional Spokesperson Mark Howell said in January that these numbers tend to be higher in states with gun-friendly laws, as gun owners often forget they have their weapon with them until they are at a TSA checkpoint.
Firearms can be transported on commercial aircraft but only if they are unloaded, packed in a locked, hard-sided case and then placed in a checked bag. Ammunition is prohibited in carry-on baggage.
At Tuesday’s hearing, the Homeland Security Transportation and Maritime Security Subcommittee received several suggestions about how to deal with this increase, though Democrats and Republicans differed on how best to reduce the number of passengers bringing guns to airports, as well as how to address passengers’ motivations.
“It is hard for me to believe that 90 percent of people that get caught with a gun in their bag forgot they had it. And even if they did forget they had it, it is still an illegal act and needs to be treated as such,” panel Chair Bonnie Watson Coleman, a New Jersey Democrat, said.
Experts from throughout the country suggested a range of options to keep guns from getting onto planes. They included better wages and workplace rights for TSA screeners, higher fines for people caught trying to get through security with a weapon in a carry-on bag, and adding those people to the no-fly list.
But Democrats and Republicans on the subcommittee differed about whether the nearly 6,000 people TSA screeners caught last year with weapons were genuinely trying to get a gun onto an airplane.
Balram Bheodari, the general manager at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and Ralph Cutié, the director of the Miami International Airport, testified that about 90% to 95% of the people caught with guns in their carry-on bags said they forgot it was there.
Florida Republican Rep. Carlos A. Giménez, the panel’s ranking member, said that likely means the best way to reduce the number of people bringing guns to airports is to add more signs reminding people they cannot bring guns on a plane.
“I’m not sure where heightened penalties are going to avert that because it was a mistake,” Giménez said. “You could charge me $100,000; if I forgot that there was something in there, I’m not sure that’s going to avert anything.”
Jason D. Wallis, chief of police for the Port of Portland, Oregon, who was testifying on behalf of the Airport Law Enforcement Agencies Network, was skeptical that more than 90% of people caught with firearms in their carry-on bags truly forgot about the weapon.
“I might be a little more pessimistic than some. I don’t always believe folks when they say they forgot it,” Wallis said. “Some, clearly it happened. But again that’s very, in my opinion, irresponsible gun ownership. And to forget you have a loaded pistol in a bag that you’re submitting to TSA for screening, to me, is an issue.”
In addition to suggestions for more signs, higher fines, mandatory gun safety training, revoking trusted traveler status and placing people on the no-fly list, subcommittee members also heard about wages and treatment of TSA screeners.
Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, called on Congress to pass two pieces of legislation that would give transportation safety officers the same type of workplace rights and protections as other federal employees and bar moving revenue from aviation security fees to non-security activities.
“It ultimately falls on the shoulders of TSOs to identify and confiscate weapons at these checkpoints,” Regan said. “There is no action response or antidote to the current surge in illegal passenger carried firearms more effective than a well-trained and well treated TSO workforce.”