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PolitiFact FL: Did TSA find a record number of guns at airports last year?

A man in a booth wearing gloves reaches for a paper.
Tony Gutierrez
A Transportation Security Administration agent assists a traveler at a security checkpoint at Love Field Airport in Dallas in 2020.

WLRN has partnered with PolitiFact to fact-check Florida politicians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning team seeks to present the true facts, unaffected by agenda or biases.

In a recent press release warning about the dangers of ghost guns — untraceable guns that users can assemble from parts — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., touted the Transportation Security Administration’s efforts to find guns in airport passengers’ bags.

"We already saw that TSA found with metal detectors nearly 7,000 firearms at airports last year — an all-time high." said Schumer said in the Jan. 29 press release.

Official data shows that Schumer is correct, though law enforcement experts add that proportionally, the rate of discovery has fallen.

TSA’s data

To properly store a firearm for flight, the TSA asks passengers to place "unloaded firearms in a locked hard-sided container as checked baggage only," then, "declare the firearm and/or ammunition to the airline when checking your bag at the ticket counter."

When a firearm is detected at an airport security checkpoint, a TSA officer will notify local law enforcement, which will then remove the passenger and the firearm from the checkpoint. The passenger may be arrested or ticketed.

TSA does not confiscate the firearms found, though it can issue civil fines up to $15,000 and typically revokes eligibility for the TSA PreCheck program for at least five years.

In 2023, TSA reported seizing 6,737 firearms at airport security checkpoints — the most in its history. That was up from the previous record of 6,542 set the year before.

The most firearms were discovered at the airports in Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth, which are also the two busiest U.S. airports.

TSA also reported that about 93% of these firearms were loaded.

"We are still seeing far too many firearms at TSA checkpoints, and what’s particularly concerning is the amount of them loaded, presenting an unnecessary risk to everyone at the TSA checkpoint," said TSA Administrator David Pekoske in a press release.

Law enforcement experts said the increased number of seizures stems partly from an increase in gun ownership.

"Between 2020 and 2022, 60 million guns were sold," according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said Keith Jeffries, a former federal security director at Los Angeles International Airport. "With that, about 7.5 million of those were new gun owners. So, anytime you see more guns or firearms flood the market, you're probably going to see that chain reaction at the airport."

Jeffries added that security technology has significantly improved over the last 21 to 22 years.

"The older, two-dimensional X-rays are being replaced by the CT (computer tomography) technology, which gives you a 3-D image that is significantly better," he said.

The rate of seizures

2023’s record-setting airport gun seizure number needs one caveat: The rate of detection fell, said Sheldon H. Jacobson, a University of Illinois computer science professor who has studied aviation security for more than 25 years. Jacobson provided the technical foundations for risk-based security that informed the TSA’s PreCheck program’s design.

In 2023, TSA screened more than 858 million people. That means the agency intercepted 7.8 firearms per million passengers — a decline from 8.6 firearms found per million passengers in 2022.

Should air travelers feel safe?

Experts say that the rising number of gun seizures shouldn’t panic travelers.

"The majority of folks" who are found with firearms "are what we call low-risk passengers," Jeffries said. "These are your more frequent travelers. They're the ones usually in PreCheck. I don't think there's any malicious intent. The number one thing that we would hear out there, and I'm sure it still stands to this day, is, ‘I forgot it was in my bag.’"

Our ruling

Schumer said, "We already saw that TSA found with metal detectors nearly 7,000 firearms at airports last year — an all-time high."

That number aligns with what TSA has reported for 2023. However, the rate of discovery fell compared with 2023 because the number of passengers increased even more.

We rate the statement Mostly True.

Our Sources