Just under 25 million passengers passed through the TSA checkpoints at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in 2019. More than 300 of them were stopped for possession of a firearm. Only 95 saw a fine assessed by the TSA.
For two years the nation’s busiest airport (but only 5th in passengers screened by the TSA) led the country in guns at the checkpoint, a most ignoble honor. In 2018 the airport screened 23.6 million travelers and at least 259 guns were discovered. But 166 of those violators were penalized by the agency.
The TSA cannot seize weapons at its checkpoints. Nor can its agents pursue criminal charges against violators. Instead it refers the criminal aspect of the charge to law enforcement officers. Local regulations and the whim of the officer at hand affect whether charges are filed.
But the TSA can and does enforce civil penalties against violators. A review of two years worth of that data shows that the agency either stopped bothering to seek those penalties in October 2018 or that it just hasn’t gotten around to it in far more cases.
But the data is clear. The number of firearms detected did not change significantly while the fines assessed dropped precipitously.
And this is not just in Atlanta. Dallas-Fort Worth rated second in firearm incidents at the checkpoint in both years, with 196 in 2018 and 198 in 2019. Nearly 75% of those caught in 2018 saw a fine assessed. In 2019 that number plummeted to just 5%.
A broader review of the TSA’s data shows this shift as a nation-wide trend: Travelers caught with a firearm in 2019 were far less likely to face repercussions for that violation than they were in the year prior. Approximately 60% of travelers stopped with a firearm at a checkpoint in 2018 were fined. That number dropped to 9% in 2019.
There are other trends in the data that also raise additional questions.
Why, for instance, were incidents at airports earlier in the alphabet more likely to incur a fine in 2019? That pattern is tied to the airport’s IATA code, not the city name, as evidenced by BNA’s presence.
That same pattern did not hold in 2018.
Also, are fewer passengers really showing up with firearms on the weekends for some reason? Classifying the data by day of week suggests Saturday and Sunday see 25-30% fewer incidents than weekdays, measured as a share of the total number of passengers screened each day.
N.B. – The data is incomplete. There are gaps in the reporting on frequency of incidents, meaning the numbers are probably worse than what’s reported here. But it is what the TSA provides on its public channels and also via FOIA request.
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