The Investigators: TSA is finding more guns at airports with far fewer passengers

Updated: Dec. 21, 2020 at 9:28 PM CST

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - As airport traffic is expected to rise over the holiday, a troubling trend inside Mid-South airports has the TSA on high alert.

Fewer people are flying but the Transportation Security Administration is finding more guns in carry-on bags this year compared to last year.

The number of passengers flying U.S. airlines decreased 62% in October 2020 compared to October 2019.

However, the TSA says its agents are finding more guns at its checkpoints, including at Memphis International.

“We’re very much concerned about what’s happening in Memphis and want to reduce that number for sure,” said Glen Thomas, public information officer for Memphis International Airport.

“Why do you think more people are being caught with firearms?” Asked WMC Action News 5 Investigators.

“There’s really no way for us to determine exactly why,” said Thomas. “We have heard from both TSA and the airlines that we’ve seen a lot more first-time fliers who are taking advantage of the lower prices.”

According to Thomas, first-time fliers may not know how to fly with a firearm; you can’t bring it in your carry-on bag or purse.

However, that’s not the number one reason people give when the TSA detects a firearm in a carry-on bag.

“99.9% of the time the excuse we get from passengers is ‘Oops, I forgot that was with me’ or ‘I forgot to take it out of my bag before heading to the airport,’” said Mark Howell, TSA Regional Spokesperson.

“Is it possible that TSA agents are catching more firearms because there are fewer passengers?” asked The Investigators. “Could fewer passengers mean that they’re looking harder because they’re able to?”

“It doesn’t attribute to it. They’re trained to look for certain things and a firearm is very easy to detect on an X-Ray image. It’s pretty easy to see if there’s a firearm in a bag,” said Howell.

When a TSA agent finds a gun, the security line comes to a halt.

The agent notifies airport police or local law enforcement and the FBI.

A person who has a gun in their carry-on faces civil penalties from the TSA -- up to $13,000 and several misdemeanors from police.

That passenger will also likely miss their flight.

Howell says airports located in open-carry states are seeing more firearms, including Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas.

“People get used to carrying their firearms around with them and that’s the big push from us is to remind passengers to be cognizant of it and think about it,” said Howell.

The TSA has found 17 guns so far this year at Jackson-Wiley Edgars in Mississippi.

Last year, 10 guns total were found in carry-on bags and there were far more passengers flying.

At Clinton National in Little Rock, TSA agents found 19 guns from January to November this year.

That’s one less firearm found than last year but this year, the number of passengers catching flights dropped by more than half.

At Memphis International, 43 guns were found at TSA checkpoints from January to October, the same number as last year.

But this year, fewer than half the number of passengers were boarding flights during that period as well.

“It’s happening at an increased rate so we want to head that off at the pass,” said Thomas.

Thomas estimates 22 people have been cited by airport police so far this year because they had guns in their carry-on bags.

According to one airport police report, a woman was cited because she didn’t have a handgun carry permit after TSA agents found the “gun in [her carry-on] bag that she had forgotten about.”

Another airport police report shows a man was not cited because he had a permit.

But he, too, told police “he placed [the gun] there a week ago and forgot it was inside.”

“Is that concerning? That we have people who forget where their firearms are located when traveling in a public space?” asked The Investigators.

“I think it’s concerning beyond the airport. I think if you own a firearm, you should know where that firearm is,” said Thomas. “It’s common-sense advice. Know what’s in that carry-on bag and if you own a firearm, know where that firearm is.”

To fly with a firearm, you must pack the unloaded weapon in a padded, locked case and declare it to the airline with your checked luggage.

For more on the rules and regulations concerning flying with a firearm, visit the TSA website.

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