The rate at which TSA officers discovered firearms in carry-on bags tripled in July compared with the previous year.
Nationwide, agents detected 15.3 guns per million passengers in July versus 5.1 guns per million passengers in July 2019.
"Even more concerning is that 80% of the firearms coming into the checkpoint are loaded, and it's just an accident waiting to happen," TSA administrator David Pekoske said. "Travelers need to know that if they bring a gun to the security checkpoint, regardless of whether it is in a handbag, knapsack, roller bag or strapped to their belt, it will be an inconvenient and expensive mistake on their part."
Civil penalties for unloaded firearms in secured areas of airports start at $2,050, while the penalty for carrying a loaded firearm starts at $4,100.
Individuals are permitted to fly with firearms in checked baggage provided they declare the weapons at check-in. Guns must be packed in a hard-sided case, locked and packed separately from ammunition.
In a Monday announcement, the TSA didn't comment on potential reasons behind the apparent jump in carry-on firearms. Gun sales, though, have surged since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in March and got another boost after the onset of nationwide protests against police violence in late May. In June the FBI processed more firearm background checks than in any other month since record-keeping began in November 1998. July saw the third-highest background check count.
University of Illinois professor Sheldon Jacobson, whose research has included the foundational analysis of what became the TSA PreCheck program, said another factor could be at play. With throughput numbers at checkpoints so far down, TSA agents can be more focused on each passenger and therefore might be missing fewer weapons. In a 2017 investigation by the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security, investigators were able to get fake weapons through the checkpoint approximately 70% of the time.
Based upon an analysis of public data, Jacobson estimates that TSA agents missed as many as 4,600 firearms at security checkpoints in 2018 and 2019.
Pekoske appealed to travelers to observe the law.
"Travelers must understand that firearms are prohibited items at airports and in the passenger cabins of aircraft," he said. "As hard as we are working to mitigate other risks at this time, no one should be introducing new ones."