HIGHFILL -- A record number of people have brought guns to the nation's airports so far this year, according to federal Transportation Safety Administration officials.
Northwest Arkansas National Airport has had 24 incidents so far this year compared to eight last year, according to airport police. All the incidents have been accidental -- somebody forgot to take it out of their bag.
Concealed carry permits don't allow the holders to carry a firearm onto a plane, according to the administration. And, if a traveler found with a gun is a member of Safety Administration PreCheck, the individual will lose his privilege.
Passengers can legally travel with firearms in checked baggage if they are properly packaged and declared at their airline ticket counter.
"What we're talking about are the ones coming through the checkpoint -- it's not against the law to carry one in your bag," said Russell White, chief of police at Northwest National, said of the guns found. "Basically, the TSA doesn't do anything with them. They find them in the luggage, they won't touch them once they find them, they just call us."
Airport police have a procedure to follow when safety workers find a firearm, White said.
"What we do is take the firearm and the person, and we'll bring them into the Police Department. We just do some basic checks on them to make sure they're not a felon and that they can legally have a firearm, check to make sure the firearm is not stolen, those kinds of things," White said.
"If everything's good with it, what we do is either let them take it back to their car or we will hold it and they can pick it up when they come back," he said.
Police do, however, provide the Safety Administration with the person's information and there's usually a civil penalty to pay, White said.
Such an incident might shut down the inspection line for a moment, but there's a police officer stationed within sight of the checkpoint most of the time, and the offender and their gun are removed from the area immediately, he said.
"If it's just accidental, we try to work with them where they don't have to miss their flight," White said.
Penalties for having loaded firearms, or unloaded firearms with accessible ammunition, in a carry-on bag range from $3,000 to $10,000 the first time and $10,000 to $13,910, for repeat violations, according to Patricia Mancha, a spokeswoman for the Safety Administration. For unloaded firearms, it's $1,500 to $2,475. There can also be a referral for criminal prosecution.
"All of these are administrative fines," Mancha said. "That's just really on a case-by-case basis."
Nathan Smith, Benton County prosecuting attorney, said his office doesn't prosecute cases when there's no criminal intent. He said the only criminal charge would be carrying a weapon and the law requires the person to have the intent to unlawfully employ it. People who simply forget and leave it in their bag didn't intend anything criminal, he said.
"Obviously, it would be different if someone tried to sneak something on to a plane, but that hasn't happened," Smith said.
Nationwide, Transportation Security Administration officers stopped 4,495 passengers attempting to carry firearms through airport security checkpoints in the first nine months of 2021, the agency told The Associated Press last week. That was up from 4,432 incidents in 2019 and sets a 20-year record.
Safety Administration officers found 3,257 firearms on passengers or their carry-on bags at checkpoints last year, although the total number of passengers screened at airport checkpoints across the country fell by 500 million compared to 2019 because of the covid-19 pandemic.
The result was twice as many firearms per million passengers screened were detected at checkpoints in 2020 compared to 2019. In 2020, officers caught about 10 firearms per million passengers compared to about five firearms per million passengers in 2019.
About 83% of the guns found by officers in 2020 were loaded.
Officers found firearms at 248 airports across the country. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport had the most with 391. Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport had 232 and George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston had 168, according to the administration.
Traveling with firearms and ammunition
The Transportation Security Administration detects firearms and other weapons at security checkpoints daily. Travelers may only transport ammunition and unloaded firearms in a locked, hard-sided container as checked baggage and are prohibited in carry-on baggage. Below are the guidelines for transporting firearms and ammunition:
Firearms must be unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container and transported as checked baggage only. Firearm parts, including firearm frames and receivers, are prohibited in all carry-on baggage and must also be placed in checked baggage.
All firearms, ammunition and parts in checked baggage must be declared at the airline ticket counter during the check-in process.
Replica firearms may be transported in checked baggage only.
Travelers are encouraged to check regulations related to carrying firearms where they are traveling from and to, as laws may vary by destination.
Rifle scopes are permitted in carry-on and checked bags.
Firearm magazines and ammunition clips, whether loaded or empty, must be securely boxed or included within a hard-sided case containing an unloaded firearm.
Small arms ammunition, including ammunition not exceeding .75 caliber for a rifle or pistol and shotgun shells of any gauge, may be carried in the same hard-sided case as the firearm, as described in the packing guidelines above.
Source: Transportation Security Administration