Lots more of our fellow travelers are packing for the airport, so to speak. This year (as of the end of last week), the Transportation Security Administration has found 892 guns in passengers’ carry-on bags at security checkpoints. That’s a 19 percent increase from the comparable period of last year, when the total was 750 guns.
The 2013 gun-tote tally was a record, at 1,813 firearms found, incidentally. As this year’s gun haul keeps rolling along, a one-day record was set Wednesday, when screeners found 18 guns, which beat the previous one-day record of 13 guns on May 20, 2013. About 80 percent of all guns found are loaded.
While the percentage of passengers packing guns is actually tiny, given that the TSA screens about 1.8 million passengers daily, the numbers and the growth rate are striking. In 2005, when the agency first started keeping detailed count, 660 guns were found.
So what’s going on here?
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In its weekly blog, the TSA compiles detailed weekly lists of weapons and where they are found. The weekly blog post describes not just firearms, but also other remarkable items people try to carry on board — hand grenades, fireworks, stun guns and even an 8 1/2-inch knife concealed in an enchilada.
The agency is circumspect — understandably so, given the emotional politics of guns — about discussing why people show up to board an airplane with firearms in their possession.
“We do not speculate on why travelers bring firearms, loaded or unloaded, to airport security checkpoints,” said David A. Castelveter, a spokesman. He added, “The fact that more firearms are being detected at the security checkpoints affirms TSA’s continued vigilance in intercepting prohibited items.”
When a gun is found, the agency notifies local law enforcement authorities. What happens next depends on state or local laws. Mostly, offenders are simply told to take the firearms back to their cars — though in some states with strict gun-control laws, an arrest might be made.
Almost always, the offender explains that he or she simply forgot about a firearm in the bag. Now, I myself am a Vietnam veteran, and as I recall, the words “I forgot” were never a satisfactory answer to any question about a gun. But times have changed in segments of a society where the inclination to be armed is increasingly supported by laws in various states affirming the right to carry weapons, openly or concealed, in public places — including airports.
Hardly any advocate for the right to carry guns thinks it is a good idea to carry one onto an airplane, though guns are allowed in checked bags if the passenger follows TSA rules on transporting firearms.
The issue at checkpoints is different from the overall issue of the right to carry a firearm in public. “What we tend to see with the TSA is people who, say, carry in a briefcase all the time as they go about their daily lives, and they’re running to take a flight and forget to remove it,” said John Pierce, a Virginia lawyer who is a co-founder of OpenCarry.org, a group campaigning for the right to “openly carry properly holstered handguns in daily American life.”
It’s generally agreed that gun-toters at checkpoints tend to be otherwise law-abiding citizens. “Based on what I have seen anecdotally, it’s my assumption that those people almost exclusively are people who have no ill intent,” said Pierce, who added that those for whom firearms are not a daily part of life might find it hard to understand those for whom carrying a firearm is second nature.
Now, I am neither foolhardy nor trigger-happy enough to plunge here into the laws, emotions and recriminations associated with carrying firearms in America. I live in Arizona, in what used to be the Wild West, and even here the issues are mind-bogglingly complex. After all, one cause of the infamous Shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, a mere 60 miles from my home, was a heated dispute over Tombstone’s strict gun-control law in 1881.
Pierce’s group promotes the right to carry a handgun openly in a holster, partly as a way “to force people to confront the object of their prejudice” — that is, a gun, he said. Other groups campaign for concealed carry or for open carry of rifles, with predictable consternation when some supporters show up at, say, a Burger King looking like commandos on patrol. And increasingly, in states where pro-gun sentiment is strong, legislatures are passing laws like Georgia’s recently enacted “guns everywhere” law, allowing firearms to be carried in nearly all public places, including the nonsecure airport areas before TSA security (but with the notable exception of the state Capitol, where legislators work).
The TSA keeps counting and sorting the reports. The readable weekly blog, which went online in 2008, is the work of a TSA social media specialist named Bob Burns, who scours daily operations data and compiles those charts listing what guns were found, and where.
And by the way, the Atlanta airport came in first place last year.