What's behind the rising number of guns found at TSA checkpoints?

AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

That was the question pondered by the House Homeland Security Transportation and Maritime Security Subcommittee on Tuesday, though no consensus was reached on why more people are showing up at the airport with guns in their carry-ons. There was also no agreement between Democrats and Republicans about what should be done to bring those numbers down, but as you can imagine, the lefties on the panel were the ones in favor of a more punitive approach.

According to the TSA, nearly 6,000 firearms were discovered at airport checkpoints in 2021, compared to about 4,400 the year before. Now, that number just a tiny fraction of the estimated 670-million passengers on US carriers last year, but it’s still a record for the agency, and with the numbers trending upwards of course lawmakers want to “do something.” What that something is, however, depends on who’s talking.

“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.

… 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 percent 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.”

If the issue is that people are forgetting to look through their bags before they head to the airport, I’m not convinced that adding more signage before they walk through security is going to do the trick. Throwing people onto the no-fly list because they made an innocent mistake, however, would be even worse; just as ineffective and way more authoritarian.

But are these really innocent mistakes? Rep. Coleman didn’t think so, and at least one expert who testified sounded skeptical as well.

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 percent 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.”

If they didn’t forget, then that means they intentionally tried to bring a gun through a TSA checkpoint. I’m more skeptical of that theory than I am about the hypothesis that several thousand gun owners simply forgot to look through their carry-on before they threw their clothes, toiletries, and iPad inside.

No, I suspect that for the vast majority of cases Hanlon’s Razor applies: never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity (though in this case forgetfulness is probably a more accurate description). If that is indeed the case, then Rep. Jimenez’ idea of reminding more gun owners to check their bags is probably the best way to address the issue, though I wouldn’t limit those PSAs to airports alone. Go where the gun owners are; maybe post reminders at gun ranges for folks to empty out their range bag before using it as a carry-on, for instance.

It only takes a couple of minutes to make sure you don’t have any ammo or a handgun tucked away in a pocket of your carry-on bag, and considering the potential consequences it should absolutely be a part of every gun owner’s pre-flight checklist. Not only will you have one less potential nightmare to deal with once you get to the airport, but you’ll spare yourself the indignity of becoming a Democratic talking point for more gun control.