Despite rising gun seizures at many airports across the state and U.S., local seizures of firearms from carry-on bags at the Chattanooga Airport at the six-month mark in 2023 are down 50% from 2022.
In Chattanooga, gun seizures at the same time in 2022 stood at 12 and this year stand at six, Transportation Safety Administration regional spokesperson Mark Howell said Friday in a phone interview. By the end of 2022, the number of seizures reached an all-time high of 30, but Howell said this year's figures so far really show more of a return to normal for Chattanooga.
"Last year was really kind of a surprise for Chattanooga because we had 30 guns last year, which is a record for the airport. But before that, in 2021, we had 24. So the last couple of years, 2021 and 2022, were pretty high," Howell said. "Before that we were really only seeing eight or nine firearms a year in Chattanooga. It really jumped up after the pandemic — 2021 and 2022 were a lot higher than what the average for a year would have been. In 2018 and 2019, we had a total of nine each of those years in Chattanooga, and in 2020. when the volume was really low during the pandemic, it was 11. Six is probably a more normal pace."
Airport CEO Terry Hart applauded the drop in seizures at the facility, noting not only is flying safer for airline customers with fewer detections but delays over firearms discoveries are fewer.
"It's nice to be able to see that reduction because when something like that happens, obviously, things stop at the checkpoint and law enforcement has to be called, and an officer will respond to meet with the individual to go through a process in everything that has to take place," Hart said Friday in a phone interview. "It just sometimes will slow up the checkpoint for that little bit of time, and we hate to see that."
Depending on TSA actions, Hart said, the person with the gun typically ends up with a fine and can lose "PreCheck" privileges if they have them. The administration's PreCheck program allows low-risk travelers a smoother checkpoint experience when they enroll for the streamlined screening services, according to the agency's website. The duration of the disqualification and loss of any privileges depend on the seriousness of the offense and any history of violations.
Top 10 U.S. airports for TSA firearm detections in 2022
1. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport — 448
2. Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport — 385
3. Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport — 298
4. Nashville International Airport — 213
5. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport — 196
6. Orlando International Airport — 162
7. Denver International Airport — 156
8. Austin-Bergstrom International Airport — 150
9. Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport — 134
10. Tampa International Airport — 131
Source: Transportation Safety Administration
In the first six months of 2023, Nashville International and Tri-Cities Airport saw an increase over the same period in 2022, while Memphis, Chattanooga and Knoxville airports had notable decreases, the administration said Thursday in a news release on state figures.
Federal officers at Tennessee airports discovered 157 firearms in travelers' carry-on luggage in the first half of 2023, a decrease of three statewide over the same period in 2022, according to the release. Each of the firearms was discovered by TSA officers during the routine screening of carry-on property at airport security checkpoints.
Nashville's airport leads the state with 101 seizures at the six-month mark, up from 92 at the same time a year ago.
For most seizures, problems begin when an officer sees the image of a firearm on the X-ray screen, and the local airport law enforcement agency is notified to respond to the checkpoint. A law enforcement officer removes the firearm from the X-ray tunnel and makes contact with the traveler, according to the release.
In addition to potential criminal citations, travelers face civil penalties for bringing firearms to the security checkpoint, and the administration evaluates each firearm incident on a case-by-case basis, officials said. Among the factors the TSA considers when determining the civil penalty amount are whether the firearm was loaded and whether there was accessible ammunition. The maximum civil penalty is $15,000 per violation. A firearms permit does not allow anyone to carry onboard.
Howell said 2021 numbers reflected new legislation that boosted seizures thanks to Tennessee's permitless firearms carry law. Under the law, which was effective July 1, 2021, 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.
Compared to a normal year before the pandemic, 2019, there were 181 guns seized, but in 2021, the total for the state leaped to 283 when the volume of passengers was still lower than normal, Howell said.
"It was a huge bump for probably a little less volume because we were starting to come back from the pandemic. We could see it in the data. Once the law changed in Tennessee we did see the numbers go up as a result," Howell said. "The reason is any state that has open carry, concealed carry, especially permitless carry, people are used to taking their firearm with them wherever they go. They kind of head out the door with their wallet, their keys, their phone and their gun."
The typical reason people gave for having an improperly carried firearm was forgetfulness, he said.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time when we have one of these firearms at the checkpoint," Howell said, "the excuse we get is, 'Oops, I forgot to take it out of my bag,' or 'Oh, I forgot to leave it home.' It's almost always unintentional."
TRAVELING WITH GUNS
Passengers who wish to travel with a firearm must ensure it is properly packed in checked baggage and declared at the airline ticket counter. Airlines may have additional requirements for traveling with firearms and ammunition, so travelers must also contact their airline for carriage policies prior to arriving at the airport, the administration said.
Federal law requires firearms to be unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container and transported as checked baggage, according to officials.