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Packing a gun in carry-on will cost you nearly $15K. But TSA's fines won't change things.

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 1/26/2023 Sheldon H. Jacobson
The Transportation Security Administration found 6,542 guns at airport security checkpoints in 2022. © Ted Shaffrey/AP The Transportation Security Administration found 6,542 guns at airport security checkpoints in 2022.

The Transportation Security Administration found 6,542 guns at airport security checkpoints last year, and almost 90% were loaded. The number of firearms detected at checkpoints has increased every year since 2010, with the exception of 2020, when air travel was depressed due to the pandemic. 

The TSA also has increased the maximum fine for those found trying to carry a gun through a security checkpoint, from $13,910 to $14,950.

Even so, the takeaway is that nothing will change, and that 2023 will likely report even more firearms discovered at checkpoints

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Some people carry guns like they carry cellphones

The problem with using fines to deter firearm-carrying passengers is that the majority of people are not bringing their gun with them intentionally and don't have malicious intent. More frequently, they simply forgot to remove it from their bag.  

There are at least 400 million guns in the United States, about 120 firearms for every 100 people. Most states allow concealed carry either with or without a permit, which means that some people carry a firearm much like they carry their cellphone. People unintentionally bringing a gun to an airport security checkpoint could just be residual leakage from more firearms in the general population and the ease at which they are obtained and carried. 

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Of course, guns can be carried by passengers in their checked luggage, unloaded, in a hard carrying case and declared at check-in.   

If the TSA is serious about people not bringing firearms to security checkpoints, what can they do? 

TSA should get to know air travelers better

Bringing a gun to an airport checkpoint is less about the weapon and more about the person. That means getting to know travelers better and increasing the level of engagement with them. 

One way to be better informed about travelers is enrolling them in TSA PreCheck. By offering this program at no cost to any person willing to undergo a background check, the TSA will transform unknown travelers into known travelers. Part of the background check assesses criminal records, so those cleared through the PreCheck vetting process are lower risk in general, and are less likely to have malicious intent. 

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Another way to keep guns away from airport security checkpoints is to have TSA officers ask people going through security whether they're carrying a firearm. If someone says yes, the person can then either go back to the airline counter to check in the firearm – or not take the flight. 

If a traveler answers no but is still found with a firearm, particularly if it is intentionally concealed, then the risk is elevated and the passenger should not be permitted to travel that day, and possibly even in the future. Such a penalty would carry far more benefit than any financial fine imposed. 

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A third, more controversial option is to give travelers the ability to apply for a permit to carry their firearm on a flight. The application process would be offered only to PreCheck-vetted passengers, and the background check would be more intense than qualifying for PreCheck status. 

Law enforcement officers are given this privilege, so a commensurate standard of scrutiny would be applied. 

Some would argue that this third option is too risky. Perhaps. However, it is certainly worthy of discussion, given that guns are already getting through airport checkpoints undetected

Largest number of guns were found at major airports

Airport security is designed to protect the air system from bad actors. As was seen from the Frontier Airlines passenger who passed through airport security with a box cutter in November, the problem was not the box cutter but the malicious intent of the passenger. 

Though 6,542 firearms seem like a large number, it represents on average of about 20 guns a day out of about 2 million people screened

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The largest number of firearms detected were at large airports in states with gun-friendly laws: Georgia (Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International), Texas (Dallas Fort Worth International and Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental), Tennessee (Nashville International) and Arizona (Phoenix Sky Harbor International). 

The question is whether asking a question to 2 million people every day worth the effort in search of about 20 affirmative responses? 

The bigger issue is whether any of these 6,542 travelers were later determined to have malicious intent? Were any of the gun-carrying passengers repeat offenders? Given that some firearms do get past airport security checkpoints, none have resulted in any harm or damage inflicted, based on subsequent news reports 

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Perhaps instead of focusing on items, which are surrogates for intent, the TSA can redirect more attention on travelers, which would result in an entire makeover of airport security checkpoints as we know them. 

Detecting guns may be a worthy endeavor to reduce risk to air transportation. Nonetheless, if the TSA is serious about reducing this number and discouraging travelers from bringing firearms to checkpoints, then its current strategy is not working. 

Sheldon H. Jacobson, a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has studied aviation security for more than 25 years, providing the technical foundations for risk-based security and TSA PreCheck.  

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Packing a gun in carry-on will cost you nearly $15K. But TSA's fines won't change things.



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