Travelers’ Advisory

If you’re planning to travel by air sometime this year, I have some advice for you: Try to avoid taking a gun with you on your way through security.

That may sound like a no-brainer—especially to regular readers of this column, who are certainly among the best and brightest people in the free world—but apparently some folks out there still haven’t gotten the message.

I say this because, despite everything we’ve heard about body scans, enhanced baggage screening procedures, and other changes relating to airline security since the 9-11 terrorist attacks of 2001, the Transportation Security Administration continues to set records in terms of the number of weapons collected from people trying to take them on board an aircraft. In fact, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times, between the 11th and 18th of September of 2015—exactly 14 years after the 9-11 hijackings—the TSA collected 67 firearms.

That’s a weekly total, not a yearly one, and it beats the previous record of 65 firearms collected in one week back in May of 2013. In other words, assuming there was one person for every gun collected, during that seven-day period in 2015, 9 people in airports across the country tried to board a plane with a gun on their person each day.

That’s not 9 people trying to travel with weapons they’ve packed in their checked luggage—which in most cases (no pun intended) is perfectly legal—but 9 people a day attempting to travel with a gun in their purse, pocket, duffle or holster. Or boot, shoe, bra or shopping bag.

The article didn’t say whether the number of people trying to get the guns through security matched the number of guns collected, so it’s possible there were fewer than 67 people involved. That hardly makes the situation better, though, since fewer people simply means more guns per person. I may be more skittish than the average person, but somehow the idea of, say, 33 people trying to get 2 guns each onto an airplane is no less frightening of an image than 67 people each with 1. Nor is it less frightening to imagine 22 people trying to get 3 weapons past security, or 11 people each trying to take 6.

In fact, it actually gets worse the lower you go. How would you like to be on a flight with the guy who’s packing 67 guns? Even if he can’t hold, aim, or fire more than 2 at a time, there’s reason to be nervous. I don’t mean to sound judgmental, but if someone is sneaking that many weapons through security and onto a plane, there’s a strong possibility he has less than honorable intentions. Those intentions may not involve mass murder or even homicide, but I’m guessing at some point in the future that dude is going to be trouble. And even if the guy is just an ignoramus who is unaware of TSA policy as it relates to firearms, I’m not sure I want him near me on foot, much less on a plane.

The article also didn’t say how many guns the TSA typically seizes each week, but even if the average is only a third of the new record that still means, on any given week, 3 people a day are trying to board a plane with a gun in the US. Even more sobering, however, is the fact that 56 of the 67 record-breaking firearms (83%) were loaded, and more than half of them were found to have a round in the chamber.

Think about that the next time you head to the airport. While you’re standing in line hoping you look enough like your current photo ID to make it through security—with your quart size zipper bag containing no more than three ounces of any given liquid—some yahoo ahead of you has completely forgotten the .22 he or she keeps strapped to his or her ankle. And while you’re taking off your shoes and all but disassembling your CPAP machine into one of those gray plastic trays, someone behind you has decided to take his or her chances with the scanner operator’s ability to identify the loaded 9mm he or she tossed into his or her laptop bag that morning, while yet another, having somehow never learned of the rules against bringing guns on airplanes, is about to get up close and personal with the folks who enforce them, thanks to the loaded .38 he or she wears in a shoulder holster under his or her jacket.

That’s an exaggeration, of course. It’s highly unlikely that all of the people trying to bring guns through security each day will be flying out of the same airport, much less at the same time. Then again, life is rife with coincidence, so you never know.

To be fair, the article didn’t specify how the weapons were discovered, so it’s hard to say whether they were found on bodies or in bags, and whether the people from whom they were confiscated brought them to the airport deliberately or by accident. Although I’ve never witnessed the discovery of a gun by a security agent, I imagine it’s an ordeal that one would go out of their way to avoid.

For that reason alone, I find it difficult to imagine anyone intentionally attempting to get a gun—or any other weapon, for that matter—through security. Maybe if you routinely carry one for protection you might forget it’s there; but I think it’s reasonable to expect people who carry guns to know where they can and cannot take them—if not because they learned it as a condition of obtaining a license to carry a gun, then at least because they care enough about their 2nd amendment rights not to jeopardize them. All of the responsible gun owners I know—which includes almost every male member of my family and personal acquaintance—take their weapons and their right to own them quite seriously, and would rather err on the side of caution by leaving them locked up at home than risk having them taken away.

That said, I find it even more difficult to imagine someone bringing a gun to the airport by accident. It’s not as if it’s a place you go on a whim, after all, or without a thought as to what you’ll be doing when you get there. In fact, with some exceptions, most people go to the airport with the intention of getting on a plane and flying somewhere. This, typically, requires people to think about what they’ll be doing when they reach their destination, which in turn, moves them to think about what to bring, and what they can and cannot take through security.

As scary as it is to think about all the guns the TSA confiscates each week from people who either don’t know the rules, ignore the rules, or forget they’re even armed, it’s scarier yet to consider how many guns and other weapons actually make it through security and onto US aircraft. According to a report in the December 14th issue of Time magazine, in 2015 the TSA failed to detect fake bombs and other weapons that Homeland Security inspectors tried to sneak through passenger checkpoints at a rate of 96%. To put it another way, the TSA succeeded in detecting concealed guns and weapons only 4% of the time Homeland Security inspectors tried to get them through passenger checkpoints in 2015.

In other words, for every 100 weapons that inspectors tried to get past security, only 4 of them were stopped. The other 96 passed undetected by body and baggage scanner operators. To put that figure in perspective, if the 67 guns the TSA stopped during their record-breaking week last September represent just 4% of the weapons that were brought to security checkpoints that week, there were 1608 others that went undetected by security personnel.

Think about THAT the next time you head to the airport. Because it means that, for every gun the TSA collects at security checkpoints, there may be as many as 24 others—83% of them loaded—in the pockets, socks, and underpants of the people one in the seats around you, or stowed in the overhead compartments just above you.

That’s an exaggeration, of course. It’s highly unlikely that all of the guns that TSA agents fail to detect on one day would pass through the same airport, much less wind up on the same plane. Unless there’s a major weakness in the system that gun smugglers in your area are cunningly or inadvertently exploiting.

The foregoing assumes, by the way, that air travelers attempt to thwart the TSA as often as Homeland Security inspectors did in 2015, which we can only hope they do not. But even if the weapons brought to security checkpoints by undercover Homeland Security agents far exceed the number brought to security checkpoints by John Q. Passenger and Jane Gun-Smuggler, there are still a lot of weapons making it onto airplanes. Which means that people who travel by air are taking a bigger gamble than they think they are.

Or not.

After all, with potentially hundreds of weapons sailing undetected through security each week and yet no reports of any shootings, bombings, or hijackings on any US-based aircraft, perhaps the folks taking guns through security aren’t as dangerous as we might assume them to be. Maybe they are unwittingly taking weapons through security with absolutely no intention of using them. And maybe those who do take them deliberately are simply trying to transport their guns from one place to another, and opting to fly in order to so as quickly as possible.

That could explain why so many of the guns confiscated by the TSA were loaded. It can take five or ten seconds to unload a gun, after all, and several more to put the bullets away. Who has time for all that when you’re trying to catch a plane?

Think about THAT the next time you head to the airport, my friends. Especially those of you who carry guns.