TSA employees find thousands of firearms in carry-on luggage every year. Houston’s biggest airport ranks among the worst in the nation for detected guns.

George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) saw 245 guns discovered by TSA at checkpoints in 2021, the third-most firearms of any airport in the country, according to TSA data. Only Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (507) and Dallas/Fort Worth’s International Airport (317) had higher totals.

Earlier this year, TSA released a report revealing officers detected 5,972 firearms at airport security checkpoints in 2021. That’s a significant increase from the 3,257 detected in 2020 and the 4,432 detected in 2019.

Of the guns found in 2021, approximately 86 percent were loaded, according to the report.

While a TSA spokesperson couldn’t speculate as to why travelers continue to bring guns to the airport checkpoints, they did say that many of the airport locations have a high volume of gun finds are located in states with more less-restrictive gun laws.

“People often think that since they can take a gun to the grocery store, they can take it to an airport,” TSA Spokesperson Patricia Mancha wrote in an email.

Mancha said the No. 1 excuse agents hear when a gun is found in carry-on luggage is, “I forgot that it was in my bag.”

“One couple even blamed their three-year-old child,” Mancha wrote. “They claimed their toddler packed the carry-on luggage and was responsible for their firearm in the luggage.”

What happens when a gun is found?

TSA does not confiscate or take any items from travelers, whether it’s a gun, a knife, pepper spray or food, Mancha wrote. Instead, travelers are given the option to either step out of the line and give the item to a non-traveler, place the item in checked luggage or place it in their car.

However, most travelers get to the airport with limited time to spare and opt to voluntarily abandon their items at the checkpoint, according to Mancha.

When TSA finds a gun, they contact the local police, according to Mancha. The police are then responsible for determining whether to charge the traveler. All travelers then get a citation in the mail that can be up to approximately $14,000. 

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In addition, anything resembling a firearm or weapon is not allowed in carry-on luggage, including replicas and toys. Most of those items are allowed in checked luggage but not carry-on luggage, with the exception of bomb replicas, bomb components or explosive materials like gunpowder.

“We continue to see novelty items like perfume, earbud chargers, salt and pepper shakers shaped like grenades,” Mancha wrote. “TSA recommends that travelers remember that any items shaped like bombs, grenades or weapons, even if they’re replicas, are not allowed in carry-on luggage. Bomb shaped items are not allowed in either checked or carry-on luggage.”

Mancha also said that TSA wants to remind travelers that there is a legal way to travel with their unloaded firearms. To learn more on how to pack a firearm and ammunition, go to the TSA’s website.

Should we be worried?

TSA detecting a lot of guns accidentally brought to the airport is a good sign that TSA is doing its job, said Sandra Guerra Thompson, a University of Houston law professor who regularly speaks about gun laws and the Second Amendment.

“At the same time, it still burdens the TSA because they don’t know whether people are making innocent mistakes or not,” Thompson said. “So they have to be particularly vigilant. It also puts travelers in a precarious legal situation where they can potentially be arrested. So it’s a serious concern in that regard.”

Thompson said people often develop habits of carrying firearms if they live in an area that has less-restrictive gun laws. The laws behind carrying a firearm could also be confusing for people, she said, as they sometimes change.

Some people may not know they’re not allowed to bring a firearm to an airport, Thompson added. “It’s not always obvious to people.” 

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