The number of people flying on commercial jetliners is down 75% from last summer, but the rate of those getting caught either inadvertently or deliberately trying to bring a gun on board is soaring.
Transportation Security Administration officers are finding guns in carry on bags at security checkpoints at a rate three times higher than they did last summer. And 80% of those guns are loaded.
The TSA reports that officers seized more than 300 guns from backpacks, shoulder bags, purses and other carry on baggage in July, a rate of 15.3 guns for every one million people screened. That's compared to a rate of 5.1 guns per million people screened in July of last year.
The rate is "particularly alarming, given that TSA screened about 75% fewer passengers in July 2020, over the previous year's volume," the agency said in a news release.
"Even more concerning is that 80 percent of the firearms coming into the checkpoint are loaded," TSA Administrator David Pekoske said. "It's just an accident waiting to happen."
The number of people going through airport security screening checkpoints hit a five-month high this past weekend, with nearly 832,000 people screened across the country on Sunday. That's the most people passing through TSA checkpoints since March 17, but it's still close to 70% fewer people than on the same Sunday last August.
Officers found 27 guns in carry on baggage at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport in July, 13 at Denver International Airport,13 at Dallas-Forth Worth, and 12 at Nashville's airport.
Last year, the TSA confiscated a record 4,432 guns at airport security checkpoints, an average of about a dozen a day.
One of the reasons more guns are being detected at airports could simply be that more people have guns. The FBI conducted 3.6 million background checks for firearms purchases last month, up 79% from July, 2019. That follows a 70% increase in background checks in June, and the number of background checks on gun buyers has topped three million in four of the last five months, according to the Associated Press. The last time gun buyer background checks surpassed the three million mark was December of 2015.
But it could also be that with far fewer travelers going through screening, TSA officers are missing fewer guns in checked baggage.
New research published in the INFORMS Journal on Applied Analytics suggests TSA officers may miss hundreds, if not thousands, of firearms at airport security checkpoints each year.
The study's author, University of Illinois professor Sheldon Jacobson, finds that between 2014 and 2016, close to 65% of weapons hidden in carry-on baggage were not detected by TSA screeners. He says TSA screener distraction and fatigue are the likely cause of such errors.
Jacobson suggests that with up to 94% fewer people passing through security checkpoints during the pandemic, (75% fewer in July), "officers working standard lanes are more focused, so miss less."
Because of incorrect information in a press release, a previous version of this story said a recent study estimated the number of firearms hidden in carry-on baggage but missed by TSA screeners between 2016 and 2018. It should have said between 2014 and 2016.