Loaded gun in your bag at Atlanta airport checkpoint? You’ll be arrested

Police say they are changing policy and will arrest people with loaded firearms in their bags at security as Atlanta remains top U.S. airport for guns detected
TSA agents at Hartsfield-Jackson has confiscated more guns at checkpoints than any other airport in America

TSA agents at Hartsfield-Jackson has confiscated more guns at checkpoints than any other airport in America

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport for years has led the nation in loaded guns detected at security checkpoints. Now the city’s police department says it will arrest people caught with loaded firearms in their bags after years of letting many walk away without being arrested.

It is illegal to bring a gun to a federally controlled airport security checkpoint.

Major Kelley Collier, who is airport commander for the Atlanta Police Department, said Tuesday that those caught with unholstered, loaded guns will be charged with reckless conduct, a misdemeanor. Such an offense is punishable by up to one year in jail or a fine of up to $2,500, according to the website of the Clayton County district attorney, where most of the airport is located.

“This is something new that we’ve been implementing,” Collier said. “If you bring a firearm to the checkpoint with a round in the chamber and that firearm is unholstered, you will be arrested and taken to the Clayton County Jail. This is an extremely dangerous act and puts everyone at risk.”

Previously, passengers who were caught with a gun at the checkpoint were taken to the airport’s police precinct for an investigation, but were not necessarily arrested, though they were subject to citations and fines.

Loosening of Georgia’s gun laws over the years has led to varying approaches to people found with such weapons at the airport checkpoints.

April 1, 2022: Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport: A Hologram displays no weapons at the security gate at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport  (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)


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Prior to 2008, it was against the law to carry a gun anywhere in the airport terminal. Then, Georgia passed a law loosening gun restrictions and allowing owners to carry firearms on public transportation.

In 2010, Georgia’s Legislature passed another bill increasing gun rights, and the city of Atlanta’s legal department eventually concluded that it could not prohibit guns in the terminal.

A measure critics called the “guns everywhere” bill that was signed into law in 2014 reinforced the right, extending it to all Georgia airports. That change meant that those who were properly licensed were released with their firearms returned to them.

In 2016, Atlanta police sergeants were trained to begin federally citing travelers who attempt to take guns through security checkpoints.

Risk of challenge

Today, those caught with guns at the checkpoint can also be fined up to $15,000, and lose TSA PreCheck privileges for up to five years.

In 2022, Georgia instituted a law that allows people to carry concealed handguns without getting a license, causing some to worry that the law could increase the number of people carrying firearms and bringing them to the airport.

Collier said Tuesday that APD has discussed the matter with the Clayton County solicitor’s office and “this is what we all came up with.”

“Having a loaded weapon in a bag that can easily go off ... that’s the issue,” Collier said.

When asked if the charges could be legally challenged, Collier responded: “There’s always a risk — you can challenge anything. ... We feel confident.”

Collier called it “reckless” to put a loaded gun in a bag where it “could easily go off.”

In 2021, a man’s gun went off at the security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson when he grabbed it during screening for a prohibited item. The gunshot inside the airport caused chaos, with travelers panicking, some passengers evacuating a concourse and others delayed.

Collier said when someone brings a firearm to a security checkpoint “they not only break the law, they also put the safety and peace of mind of fellow passengers at risk.”

The vast majority of the guns caught at airport security checkpoints are loaded.

Across the country last year, there were a record 6,737 guns caught at airport security checkpoints in 2023 — and 93% of the guns were loaded, according to TSA.

Last year, Atlanta airport had the most guns caught in the country for the eighth year in a row, with 451 firearms intercepted at checkpoints, according to TSA.

So far this year, 148 firearms have been caught at Hartsfield-Jackson — again the most in the country. It’s also up from 133 this time last year.

“If you need to travel with your firearm, it cannot be in your carry on bag. It must be in your checked luggage. And there are specific procedures you will need to follow,” said Robert Spinden, federal security director in Atlanta for the Transportation Security Administration, on Tuesday. “If you’re a gun owner, and you’re planning to travel, set a reminder right now on your cellphone for the day of your flight to safely store your firearm somewhere other than your carry on bag.”

APD has also been making changes with other enforcement at Hartsfield-Jackson, including new restrictions on who can go to the airport.

A hard-sided case, locks, handguns, and firearms declaration cards are seen Wednesday, March 6, 2022 at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. These items are needed to properly transport firearms on flights.  (Daniel Varnado/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

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Credit: Daniel Varnado

The only people permitted to go to the airport are ticketed passengers, workers, people meeting and greeting passengers “and others who have legitimate business to conduct at the airport,” the Atlanta airport said.

According to Hartsfield-Jackson, police officers may approach people to “verify their purpose” at the airport. “Individuals may be asked to show their boarding pass or proof of airport business,” according to the airport.

It’s an expansion of a policy announced in 2018 a growing issue of homeless people sleeping in the domestic terminal by limiting access to the facility in the overnight hours.

Collier said no one has been charged under the new 24/7 restrictions yet, but authorities have been informing people without business at the airport of the new rules, “there’s been a huge decrease.”

Collier said police have also been working to address an increase in car thefts at the airport this year, making some arrests of people accused of taking cars parked in the airport decks and from the curbside and positioning officers in “strategic locations.”

“We saw an increase (in car thefts) at the beginning of this year,” Collier said. “We saw a spike and now it’s gone down.”

How to legally fly with a gun

  • Pack the gun unloaded, in a locked, hard-sided case
  • The weapon must be in a checked bag, not a carry-on
  • You must declare the firearm to the airline
  • Ammunition must be packed separately in the case, in boxes designed to securely carry it, and declared to the airline

Source: TSA website