Guns are first on the list of items you’re not supposed to bring onto a plane, but more and more passengers keep getting stopped at security checkpoints with firearms in their carry-ons.
And the weapons are usually loaded.
“We don’t want another tragedy,” said Sari Koshetz, spokeswoman for the . “You see the way some people fling their bags onto the X-ray belts in the checkpoints. One of those loaded guns could discharge with fatal results.”
The week of July 10-16 set a record for passengers trying to take loaded and unloaded guns onto planes in carry-ons across the nation, TSA reported. Eighty-nine weapons were collected, including three handguns at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport: an unloaded .45-caliber and a loaded .25-caliber and 9 mm.
The record may not stand for long if the past is any indication. The previous record, 82 guns in a week nationwide, was set in May.
And the long-term trends are almost surprising in their consistency, said TSA spokeswoman Koshetz.
The number has gone up every year since 2005, except once — in 2007 it dropped from 821 to 803.
The steady increase in intercepted weapons cannot be attributed to any improvements in the screening process, Koshetz said.
“We’ve always been very well trained in identifying firearms,” she said. “We look for evolving threats. For example, firearms have gotten smaller.”
From 2012 to 2016, the number of passengers traveling through US airports increased 16 percent. The number of guns collected at checkpoints more than doubled (from 1,556 to 3,391) in the same period.
Locally, 56 guns were intercepted in Fort Lauderdale last year, 45 at Miami International Airport and 24 at Palm Beach International Airport.
More than four out of five recovered weapons were loaded.
Koshetz was not aware of anyone successfully sneaking a gun past airport security, but said if it happens, it’s exceedingly rare.
It is legal to bring unloaded firearms onto a plane in checked baggage, and there are specific procedures for packing and handling them. Esteban Santiago legally brought a Walther 9 mm semi-automatic handgun to Fort Lauderdale on a flight that originated in Alaska on Jan. 6. When he landed, he retrieved the weapon from a baggage office, loaded it, and went on a rampage, killing five and wounding six. He’s been charged with murder, attempted murder and other crimes and is .
In May, a Sun Sentinel columnist in a locked case on five one-way flights without incident.
But only some federal law enforcement officers and military are allowed to carry guns onto planes with them.
So far this year, the TSA has stopped 47 passengers with guns at the airport in Fort Lauderdale, 43 of them loaded. In the same time period last year, 34 were stopped.
Miami saw a similar increase, from 19 at this point last year to 26 so far in 2017. In Palm Beach County, the number has been steadier — 15 this year, 14 last year at this time.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the nation’s busiest, was No. 1 last year for firearms, with 198 weapons stopped at security. Orlando was sixth, with 86. Tampa was eighth, with 79, while Fort Lauderdale came in 16th with 56.
Miami International had fewer incidents than Fort Lauderdale this year and last year, even though it is the busier airport. In 2016, Miami saw 44.6 million passengers pass through its gates. Fort Lauderdale had 29.2 million. Koshetz said Miami’s lower numbers are possibly due to a higher percentage of international travelers who are more aware of the restrictions against bringing weapons to other countries.
Palm Beach International consistently trails its neighbors in the number of incidents as well as in passengers — 6.3 million people went through the gates in 2016.
The most common reason passengers give screeners and law enforcement agents is that they made a mistake.
“The reason or excuse they give is always the same,” said Broward Sheriff’s Captain Roy Liddicott, district commander at the Fort Lauderdale Airport. “I forgot. That’s what they say. I forgot. I was at the gun range and I forgot. It’s irresponsible gun ownership. If you’re a responsible gun owner, you know where your gun is at all times.”
The consequences for getting caught trying to bring a gun past airport security can be severe. The fine can reach $12,000, depending on whether it’s a first offense, whether the gun is loaded and other factors.
“When our officer detects a firearm in your carry-on, they freeze the operation in that lane,” said Koshetz. “We call in law enforcement. And it’s up to them to take control of the weapon and whether that individual will face arrest or not.”
Arrests are typically for those who do not have concealed weapons permits. Four have been stopped at the Fort Lauderdale airport and charged with a felony this year, said Liddicott.
“The TSA and the airline industry could do gun owners a huge favor by letting concealed carry permit holders know that it does not allow them to bring the weapon on a plane,” said Douglas Kidd, executive director of the Virginia-based National Association of Airline Passengers. “I’d wager a campaign like that would eliminate more than half these incidents.”
In Fort Lauderdale this year, 43 people stopped with a gun had permits. They didn’t face criminal charges, but they were delayed and many missed their flights — the interrogation and background check process can take an hour or more.
“It’s no real concern of ours whether you make your flight or not,” Liddicott said.
Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.
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