Chattanooga Airport sees firearms seized go way up in 2021

All of Tennessee's major airports post surging numbers

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / TSA officer Cody Harmon checks Soy Lacey in before she leaves for Florida at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport on Sunday, December 19, 2021.

Chattanooga Airport is seeing double the number of guns seized this year over 2020 from passengers going through the security checkpoint, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

The data shows that all of Tennessee's major airports are seeing a surge in guns confiscated this year, with a TSA spokesman citing a new state law that went into effect this summer that allows the so-called "constitutional carry" of handguns.

Under the law that started July 1, people who are 21 and older can carry a firearm openly or concealed with no training or permit required if they have no existing convictions barring them from owning a gun.

Mark J. Howell, TSA's regional spokesperson, said the spike in handguns discovered at airport checkpoints in the state started when the law went into effect.

"The number went up when the gun law changed," he said. "It's a distraction when you've got more firearms coming in."

Also, when a gun is found at the checkpoint, the line where it's located is temporarily shut down, Howell said. He said a police officer has to come and take charge of the weapon.

In Chattanooga, which has three checkpoint lines, that means there's a 33% reduction in the number of passengers who can get through to their flights, Howell said.

TSA figures show that 22 guns have been seized at Chattanooga Airport for the year as of mid-December, up from 11 in 2020.

While passenger traffic is much higher in Chattanooga this year than last when boardings were hurt by the coronavirus, figures show the number of guns confiscated in 2021 is even more than double 2019 and 2018, when nine were found each year, according to TSA.

At busy Nashville International Airport, 155 guns have been seized so far in 2021, up from 94 last year, 97 in 2019 and 86 in 2018, TSA numbers show.

At Memphis International Airport, 65 guns have been found at the checkpoint. That's up from 48 last year, 46 in 2019 and 47 in 2018.

Firearms seized

Number of guns confiscated at the security checkpoint at Tennessee's major airports so far in 2021 versus 2020 and 2019: - Chattanooga: 22, 11, 9. - Nashville: 155, 94, 97. - Memphis: 65, 48, 46. - Knoxville: 17, 7, 26. - Tri-Cities: 8, 2, 3. Source: Transportation Security Administration

At McGhee-Tyson Airport in Knoxville, 17 guns have been confiscated, up from seven last year, figures show. But this year's figure is down from 26 guns in 2019 and up just one from 2018.

At Tri-Cities Airport, eight guns have been seized in 2021, up from two last year and three in 2019 and four in 2018, according to TSA.

Terry Hart, Chattanooga Airport's chief executive, said there has been an uptick in the number of first-time travelers due to the coronavirus, and that may be one reason why people are mistakenly bringing a handgun to the checkpoint.

Almost always, their explanation is that they simply forgot they were carrying, he said.

Jim Hall, the Chattanooga Airport Authority's vice chairman, said the job done by TSA at the checkpoint is an important one.

He said that "9/11 is still on everyone's mind," referring to the terror attacks of 2001.

Both Hart and Hall declined to comment on whether state law ought to be reconsidered in light of the sharp jump in guns uncovered at airport checkpoints this year.

Howell said TSA finds that the handguns are almost always with the passengers and loaded. He said that 99% of the time "people just mistakenly aren't paying attention."

"You've got to flip that switch as a traveler," Howell said.

The state law doesn't apply to long guns, and it increased certain penalties. Nationwide, about 20 other states currently don't require permits for the concealed carry of handguns.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.