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But the ratio of guns to passengers seeking to board airplanes has jumped sharply.
The Transportation Security Administration said Monday that it found 58 guns at checkpoints from March 22 to April 22, compared with 346 guns over the same stretch last year.
Adjusting for the 95% drop in travelers, that means TSA screeners found one gun for every 80,000 people screened — or 2.7 times the rate of a year ago, when they found one gun for every 216,200 people.
TSA declined to offer an explanation or theory about why the rate of finding guns has gone up this spring.
Jeffrey Price, who teaches aviation security at the Metropolitan State University in Denver, said he thinks there are several reasons behind the higher rate of gun discoveries: a recent spike in gun sales, an “apocalypse mindset” that makes people feel justified carrying a gun on a plane, and shorter TSA lines.
With fewer people to screen, TSA screeners “can take a lot more time with each person and their belongings," Price said.
Checkpoint screeners use X-ray machines that alert them to take a closer look if something appears unusual in the contents of a bag. In past government-run covert tests, TSA screeners processing pre-pandemic levels of passengers failed to find fake weapons a high percentage of the time, according to published reports.
While the exact numbers remain classified, the inspector general of the Homeland Security Department said in an unclassified summary that a 2017 test found problems with both screener performance and TSA equipment.
Another aviation-security expert, Sheldon Jacobson at the University of Illinois, said the uptick in gun-carrying rates could be because people who are still flying during a pandemic may be different — and more prone to carry a gun. Leisure travelers in particular have mostly stopped flying.
“People who are leisure flyers traveling with their families, they don’t bring guns to checkpoints,” Jacobson said.
One trend has held constant in 2019 and 2020: Most of the guns TSA screeners find in carry-on bags are loaded. The agency said that from Feb. 24 through April 22 its screeners found 317 guns, and 263 were loaded.
It is legal to ship guns on an airline plane if they are unloaded, packed in a locked case and stored in checked baggage that goes in the cargo hold.