TSA chief cites ‘substantial increase’ in firearms at airports

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The acting head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Darby LaJoye said the number of firearms detected at airport checkpoints spiked last year, with elevated numbers extending in 2021.

“It really is a fairly substantial increase. When you measure it against per millions, it was double last year than what it was the year prior,” LaJoye told The Hill in an interview Wednesday. 

He said that in the last week of April, TSA found 120 firearms.

“And in just one day, on April 23, we detected over 32 firearms. Just in that one day,” he added.

LaJoye went on to say that over 80 percent of the firearms detected at checkpoints are loaded.

A loaded firearm, or an unloaded firearm with accessible ammunition, found at a checkpoint or on a plane carries a fine between $3,000 and $10,000 and a criminal referral. For repeat violators, the fines range between $10,000 and $13,910. 

“This really is, it’s a concern we have. It’s a public safety concern. It’s an officer safety concern,” LaJoye said.

“Most airports, when you travel, you’re going to see a state or local law enforcement officer right there. So a number of these firearm cases resulted in an arrest,” he added.

During congressional testimony Wednesday, LaJoye told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security that twice as many firearms were seized in 2020 compared to 2019.

Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), a subcommittee member, vowed to address the problem.

“This is a pervasive problem that needs to be addressed. I’ll work with my colleagues to determine which commonsense steps we can take to ensure the safety of airline passengers and the TSA agents who are there to protect them,” the congressman told The Hill.

TSA announced in January that the firearm catch rate in 2020 was the highest in the agency’s 19-year history. Agents caught about 10 firearms per 1 million passengers screened, double the rate in 2019.

The airports with the highest numbers last year were for cities like Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Denver, Nashville, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. In Atlanta alone, 220 firearms were taken by TSA officers in 2020.

“The excuse we generally get is they didn’t know, they forgot,” LaJoye said, while noting that the number of repeat offenders is “very, very low — exceedingly low.”

TSA rules say firearms must be unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container and transported as checked baggage only.

LaJoye is the senior official performing the duties of the TSA administrator. Before this post he was executive assistant administrator for security operations.

Administrator David Pekoske, who has served as the head of TSA since 2017, is serving as acting deputy secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, at the request of President Biden. He is expected to be back as TSA administrator soon, according to the agency.

At Wednesday’s hearing, LaJoye also provided data about the mask mandate being enforced by TSA at airports and on planes. 

Incidents of non-compliance since the mandate was put in place in February reached 2,071 as of Wednesday. In airports and onboard aircrafts, there have been 43 arrests for non-compliance, according to the agency.

The mask requirement is for travel on airplanes, in airports, on buses and on rail systems. It went into effect in February with an initial expiration date of May 11 but has since been extended to Sept. 13.

Tags airplanes Airports Firearms Guns Joe Biden Pete Aguilar

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