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Air traffic is down, gun seizures up at U.S. airports

UPDATED: Mon., Aug. 10, 2020

A TSA worker, right, checks a passenger before they enter a security screening at Orlando International Airport in Orlando, Fla., on June 17, 2020.  (Associated Press)
A TSA worker, right, checks a passenger before they enter a security screening at Orlando International Airport in Orlando, Fla., on June 17, 2020. (Associated Press)
By David Koenig Associated Press

DALLAS — With air traffic nearing a five-month high, airport security is finding guns in passenger carry-on bags at three times the rate recorded before the pandemic.

And 80% of the guns are loaded.

The discoveries at airports comes at a time when U.S. gun sales are surging, and analysts believe many of those purchases are being made by first-time buyers.

Officers found 15.3 guns for every million people screened in July, compared with 5.1 per million people in July of last year, the Transportation Security Administration said Monday.

There has been a significant increase in loaded guns at checkpoints, said TSA Administrator David Pekoske. He said screeners are already working in conditions of heightened risks and that “no one should be introducing new ones.”

“Even more concerning is that 80% of the firearms coming into the checkpoint are loaded, and it’s just an accident waiting to happen,” Pekoske said in a prepared statement.

After an extended lull in activity, gun sales have begun to surge in recent months.

FBI figures show that there were more than 3.6 million firearms background checks requested in July, a 79% increase from July 2019.

Background checks have been rising every month compared with a year earlier since April 2019, but they picked up even faster this year, with checks topping 3 million in four of the last five months. Checks had not exceeded 3 million in one month since December 2015.

Cowen analyst Cai von Rumohr, who tracks gun sales, said the increases are likely due to fear about COVID-19 lockdowns, civil unrest, and former Vice President Joe Biden’s lead over President Donald Trump in polls ahead of the Nov. 3 election “given his more restrictive stance on gun control relative to President Trump.”

The analyst said an outsized rise in handgun sales in June and July indicates that many purchases are being made by first-time gun owners.

It is legal to transport guns in checked bags if they are unloaded and in a locked case. There are federal civil penalties for improperly placing a gun in a carry-on bag, and violators can lose the use of faster-screening programs such as TSA PreCheck, but criminal charges are usually left to local authorities.

Last year, 4,432 guns were found in carry-on bags, or about 12.1 per day, and 87% were loaded.

TSA’s public appeal to follow gun rules occurred the same day that it reported screening 831,789 people on Sunday. It was the first time checkpoint traffic in U.S. airports has topped 800,000 since March 17. That is still down 69% from the comparable Sunday a year ago.

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