Nearly 6,000 guns were found in carry-on luggage at checkpoints nationwide in 2021, breaking a record set just two years earlier, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
The 5,972 guns intercepted at U.S. airports last year represents a 35% increase, or more than 1,500 more weapons, compared with 2019. The agency also reports that 86% of those firearms were loaded.
“That presents a significant health, safety and security concern for us,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske told CBS News’ transportation correspondent Errol Barnett.
The disturbing trend came in a year when millions of Americans returned to air travel after COVID-19 nearly brought it to a halt. In 2021, TSA workers screened more than 585 million passengers at airport checkpoints.
But even as travel remains below pre-pandemic levels, Pekoske is worried about the alarming record.
“What’s causing it? I don’t know exactly, but generally I think our weapons carriage detections reflect just more people carrying weapons in the country,” he said.
Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson was at the top of the TSA list, with 507 guns detected in 2021, up from 323 in 2019. When a gun was found by a TSA officer there last November, the suspect reached in and accidentally discharged the weapon, causing chaos at the world’s busiest airport.
“That illustrates why loaded weapons are so dangerous, because it’s very easy to discharge those weapons,” Pekoske said. “When that passenger lunged for the bag, he discharged that firearm into the checkpoint.”
Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and Nashville round out the top five.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearm industry trade association that tracks background checks, says gun sales are up nationwide. In 2020, over 8.4 million people bought a gun for the first time, according to the group. And that year, a record 21 million background checks were conducted, compared to 13.2 million in 2019, the association said.
Mark Oliva, the association’s director of public affairs, said travelers can take a gun onto a plane, but only safely and securely as checked luggage.
“For those who do choose to travel with their firearms, understand that it is possible and there’s a way to do that,” he said. “Make sure that you secure that firearm, either in the proper travel bags that you can have or that you can go through TSA with, or you make sure it’s locked up before you even leave the home.”
Pekoske warned that taking a gun to a checkpoint could cost you.
“Know that if you do have a weapon and it’s detected in the checkpoint, it’s first going to take you a lot more time,” he said. “Secondly, there might be local law enforcement action. And third, we will follow up with a civil penalty action, so it’s a very costly mistake to make.”
That fine — $13,910 — and losing your TSA pre-check is pretty costly for something that can be prevented.