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Airport security confiscated 5,700 firearms in 2021, the most ever

January 13, 2022, 10:45 PM UTC

The Transportation Security Administration confiscated 5,700 guns last year, the most in the agency’s 20-year history. And many of those firearms were loaded. 

“The reason, I think, is just that there’s more firearms carriers in the country,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske said at a press conference this week. “Generally, what we see in our checkpoints, in terms of what people carry, that reflects what’s going on in the country.”

The previous record for firearms confiscated by the TSA was 4,432 in 2019. Meanwhile, the rate of TSA detecting firearms doubled to 11 per million passengers in 2021, from five in 2019. 

Carrying firearms or ammunition in carry-on luggage through airport security checkpoints is banned, though TSA regulations allow unloaded firearms in checked baggage.

Gun purchases accelerated dramatically during the pandemic, with more than 5 million adults becoming first-time gun owners from January 2020 to April 2021. That was more than double the 2.4 million adults who first purchased guns in all of 2019, according to a recent study on gun ownership.

More than 11 million people, including 5 million children, were newly exposed to weapons because of the increase in purchases, according to a study by Matt Miller, a professor of health sciences and epidemiology at Northeastern University.

“In going from zero guns to one gun, the risk of dying a violent death increases dramatically—not just for the gun owner, but also for the other people in the household as well,” says Miller, who published the study with Deborah Azrael of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

Highlighting the gun problem in airports was an incident during the busy Thanksgiving season in November, when a gun was accidentally discharged at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Three travelers sustained non-life-threatening injuries during the chaos and panic that ensued. “We’ve had many more incidents where there are passenger disturbances both in checkpoints and onboard aircraft. That makes it more important that there are no guns involved,” Pekoske said in an interview, referring to interactions between airline officials and passengers who refuse to comply with COVID-19 mask regulations. 

Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, which fights for public safety measures to prevent gun violence, told Fortune, “The record number of firearms being recovered at airports across the country is the logical outcome of the NRA’s dangerous agenda to allow guns for anyone, anywhere, any time—no questions asked.”

The federal background check system for all gun buyers became overwhelmed during the pandemic, with 43% more checks being processed between March and November 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit group that advocates for gun control.

If background checks, processed by the FBI, take longer than three business days, sales may proceed without them, in what’s known as the Charleston loophole. While data is not yet available for 2021, the FBI never finished over 316,000 background checks during the first nine months of 2020 alone, more than in any other year on record. Those numbers don’t include data for October, November, and December, which are typically the busiest months for gun purchases

“Where guns are, gun violence follows—whether it’s unintentional discharges, like in the Atlanta airport, or tense situations that turn deadly, like the surge in road rage shootings and gun violence at sporting events,” Watts told Fortune. “If more guns and fewer gun laws made us safer, America would be the safest country in the world. Instead, lax gun laws have led to us having the highest level of gun violence among all peer nations.”

The gun homicide rate in the U.S. is 25 times higher than that of other developed countries. 

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