“We are seeing a major increase in firearms that are coming through checkpoints” nationwide, Howell said.
Heavier passenger traffic combined with more travelers carrying guns are responsible for the increase, according to Howell.
“We’re seeing more people traveling and more people carrying,” he said. “In 99.9 percent of all cases, there’s no intent to do any harm.” Instead, he said, passengers don’t realize the gun is in their bag, or say their husband or wife packed the bag for them.
Last week, a record-breaking 67 firearms were found at checkpoints across the country.
In Georgia, a new state law expanded gun rights in 2014.
Hartsfield-Jackson is the world’s busiest airport — though as a hub where the majority of passengers are connecting, the passenger count includes tens of millions of people every year who do not go through security in Atlanta.
Other airports in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco have more passengers going through checkpoints than Atlanta’s airport does. Those airports also happen to be in states with stricter gun laws and have far fewer gun discoveries at checkpoints, ranging from nine at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to 26 at Los Angeles International for this year through August.
TSA heavily publicizes its discoveries of weapons through weekly posts on its blog and public education campaigns warning passengers not to take guns to security checkpoints.
The agency has been criticized for failures to detect mock explosives and weapons during tests and is retraining airport screeners at Hartsfield-Jackson and other airports around the country.
In Atlanta, when a gun is detected at a security checkpoint, a TSA agent sounds an alarm and shuts down the lane — which can cause longer waits. Atlanta police are called to respond to the checkpoint and retrieve the gun from the X-ray machine or wherever it is found — in some cases, a gun is found in a holster worn by the passenger. Police take the passenger and gun to the police precinct at the airport. Those without a valid license can be arrested.
Even for those with licenses who are released — with their guns returned to them — TSA imposes civil penalties in almost all cases. The maximum is $7,500, though that high a fine is rare. The penalty varies depending on whether the gun is loaded or unloaded, and TSA's sanction amounts also vary depending on factors such as whether it's a repeat violation, the person's level of experience, their attitude, the economic impact on the person, any disciplinary action by an employer, whether there was "artful concealment" or any fraud or intentional falsification.
“Always do your research before you fly with your firearm,” including checking carry laws at your destination, Howell said. Otherwise, “it could be a very costly mistake.”