Monday, Feb. 1, 2021 | 2 a.m.
From the heart of Las Vegas comes a disquieting new report reflecting America’s glut of firearms and its problem with gun safety.
Last week, the Transportation Security Administration announced that McCarran International Airport ranked among the top 10 U.S. airports where guns were found in carry-on baggage or improperly packed last year.
McCarran came in at No. 9, with 72 weapons seized at TSA checkpoints. Others on the list were Atlanta (220), Dallas (176), Houston (126), Phoenix (124), Denver (104), Nashville (94), Fort Lauderdale (87), Orlando (79) and Salt Lake City (71).
That’s a lot of guns — an average of more than one per week seized at McCarran. And keep in mind, these numbers didn’t include weapons packed properly in checked luggage. Under federal law, guns can be placed in checked bags as long as they’re unloaded and placed in hard-sided cases, but firearms cannot be brought into an aircraft cabin under any circumstances, including by concealed-carry permit holders.
As for the guns at the focus of the TSA report, those were taken by security officials after people tried to bring them through screening checkpoints or improperly packed them in checked bags. The report said 5 in 6 of those guns were loaded.
The number was a record in terms of the guns seized on a per-passenger basis: about 10 guns per 1 million travelers. Although more guns were found in 2019, passenger volume was far higher that year than during pandemic-reduced air travel in 2020.
So why were these people trying to bring guns aboard planes?
The report doesn’t offer any answer. But in the past, TSA agents have said that passengers often tell them they simply forgot the guns were in their bags.
Now that’s quite an “oops.”
David Chipman, a policy adviser to the gun-safety group led by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and a former special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told The Washington Post that the forgetfulness among gun owners “says everything about the reality of the concealed-carry movement.”
“There are probably a small percentage of people who carry and are trained, like we expect from law enforcement or military,” he said. “The rest are untrained or irresponsible.”
As for the per-passenger upswing in guns found last year, it’s entirely plausible that it was tied to a massive increase in gun sales in 2020. Based on the number of background checks performed by the FBI, analysts said sales set the annual record by the end of October, when 17 million firearms had been sold. The spike, which was attributed to fears related to the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, pushed the overall number of civilian-owned guns in the U.S. to nearly 400 million, according to one widely cited estimate.
With the country awash in many weapons, it’s perhaps no surprise that some of them are turning up at airport screening points.
What to do about it? That’s a sprawling question, but at the very least the problem highlights the need for maintaining strong airport security and beefing up training and certification requirements for concealed-carry permits and other gun ownership. Alarmingly, a growing number of states have dropped concealed-carry regulations completely, and instead allow any legal gun owner to carry weapons concealed. The list of those states is at 19, and lawmakers next door in Utah are considering following suit.
This is madness. When guns become so common and are treated in such an offhanded way by owners, and when concealed carry becomes so easily available that weapons are forgotten in bags like bottles of water, we have a problem.
Fortunately, Nevada still requires concealed carry permits, and in recent years has taken several steps to improve gun safety. Those include adopting universal background checks for weapon purchases and a red-flag law that allows guns to be confiscated from people who are legally deemed a threat to themselves and others.
But considering the gun-happy policies of other states, and massive deficiencies in federal gun-safety laws, we’re a long way from getting our arms around the issue.
In terms of airport safety, one place to start may be to increase the penalties for being caught with an improperly stored gun. Currently, the offense is punishable by federal civil penalties of up to $13,000, with a typical first offense costing $4,100 in penalties. That’s not cheap, but it’s obviously not getting people’s attention.
Bringing unsecured guns to airports isn’t just a harmless oversight, it’s potentially putting others in serious danger. It’s time to treat it as such by beefing up the penalties.