Even as air travel languished below pre-pandemic levels, the number of travelers attempting to pass through airport security checkpoints with firearms in 2021 reached its highest point since the Transportation Security Administration began tracking it 20 years ago, the agency said Wednesday.
The TSA has stopped travelers carrying more than 5,700 firearms at U.S. airports since the beginning of 2021, far surpassing the previous record of 4,432 firearms in 2019, according to TSA spokesperson R. Carter Langston. A final tally will be announced next month.
About 85% of the firearms found in 2021 were loaded, Langston said.
The surge in gun discoveries comes even though travel demand remains about 25% below the pre-pandemic pace of 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
The increase is probably tied to a jump in overall U.S. gun sales since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Langston, who cited a July 2020 report by the Brookings Institute, a Washington think tank.
In January and February of 2020, the average number of daily gun sales in the U.S. was about 92,000, the study said. After then-President Trump declared a national emergency on March 13, daily gun sales jumped to more than 120,000 a day, peaking at 176,000 on March 16. In total, nearly 3 million more guns were sold between March and July of 2020 than would have ordinarily been sold during those months, Brookings reported.
"It's a trend with guns in America and now we are seeing more guns at airports," Langston said.
Gun laws vary by state, but federal law prohibits airline passengers from bringing firearms, weapons, explosives or any replicas or movie props into the cabin of a plane. Unloaded firearms may be transported but only if they are declared to the airlines and locked in checked luggage. Legal gun owners who attempt to pass through security with their weapons are fined but can eventually get their guns returned to them; local police can seize illegal guns and arrest the travelers who possess them.
Violators face fines of up to $13,910 per violation per person, depending on the number of previous offenses and whether the firearm was loaded at the time.
The airports with the greatest number of uncovered firearms this year are Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, according to the TSA.