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Higher fines, more signs, and a no-fly list could help deter passengers from bringing a rising number of guns to airport security checkpoints, airport executives, police, and lawmakers said.
Such incidents reached record levels over the last year and more needs to be done to stop them, witnesses told a House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing on Tuesday. Transportation Security Administration officers found 5,972 firearms at airport security checkpoints nationwide in 2021, about an 83% spike from the year before.
“TSA and Congress should consider significantly raising the civil penalties imposed to make an actual impact,” said Jason Wallis, president of Airport Law Enforcement Agencies Network and chief of police at the Port of Portland. He suggested other steps: clear signage and permanent revocation of Trusted Traveler privileges for violators.
Federal law prohibits bringing a gun on a plane in a carry-on bag, even if the passenger has a state-issued concealed weapon permit. Gun seizures have jumped over the years as more states allow people to carry firearms openly or make concealed-weapons permits easier to obtain.
“We need to explore a range of solutions to keep guns off planes and away from TSA checkpoints,” Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), chair of the Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security, said.
Fines and Signs
Passengers can face fines by TSA for bringing a firearm in carry-on baggage. These can range from $1,500 to $13,910, Wallis said, but the “maximum penalty is rarely if ever imposed” and is “clearly not serving as a deterrent.”
Gun seizures surged last year at U.S. airports even as passenger travel lagged pre-Covid numbers. Many passengers say they forget they have their guns with them, airport officials said.
“This is not a gun-control issue, this is an education issue,” Carlos Gimenez (R-Fla.), ranking member of the subcommittee, said. Increased fines probably won’t help for people who forgot, he said. Rather, greater signage and the most advanced technology to detect firearms are the solutions, he said.
Chief Executive Officer Ralph Cutié said Miami International Airport started a passenger education effort last fall, worked with TSA to put up “high visibility signage” at all checkpoints, and encouraged airlines to make passengers aware of gun restrictions when ticketing. That proved effective as the airport went from a previous high of two to three incidents per week to only three in January, he said.
Others said TSA agents should be compensated better because they are on the front lines of ensuring passenger safety. Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO President Greg Regan called on lawmakers to pass legislation (H.R. 903/S. 1856) that would modify workplace rights and benefits for officers.
“There is no action, response, or antidote to the current surge in illegal passenger-carried firearms more effective than a well-trained and well-treated” TSA workforce, Regan said.
Training, No Fly List
The general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, one of the world’s busiest hubs, pitched interventions beyond fines and signs. Lawmakers should also consider having passengers attend gun-safety training after a violation and adding violators to a no-fly list until that training is complete, Balram Bheodari said.
The rise in gun seizures at airports coincides with increase in unruly passenger behavior. Airlines and the Biden administration have been working to create a national no-fly list to ban violent passengers following a surge in incidents during the pandemic.
“The increase in unruly passenger incidents alongside the increase in firearms injected into the aviation environment make for a toxic combination,” Watson Coleman said.
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