Why do Americans keep bringing guns through airport security?

Miami, Florida, Miami International Airport, security screening, do not bring firearm through checkpoint. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Michael Lee Evans remembered he had misplaced the ammunition clip for a pistol years ago, but he didn’t expect to see it come out of his luggage. It was an even bigger surprise for the 72-year-old from Texas to learn he could be facing years in prison for bringing the bullets into Turks and Caicos.

Evans said a December anniversary trip turned into a “nightmare” when he and his wife, Sharon Evans, were stopped by security at Providenciales International Airport. He was arrested and taken to the police station, but it wasn’t until he talked to an attorney provided by the local government that he realized the severity of the situation.

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“I asked him, ‘How much trouble am I in?’” Evans recalled, and the attorney answered, “You are in significant risk.”

Turks and Caicos prohibits the possession and use of unlicensed firearms and ammunition under an ordinance that has led to at least five American arrests in the British territory over the past seven months, including Evans. In interviews with The Washington Post or reports by other media, each of those travelers have said they packed ammunition by accident. That was the same explanation that Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.) gave after she was charged with bringing an unloaded handgun to Dulles International Airport on June 28.

The incidents in Turks and Caicos tie into a trend with U.S. travelers. The number of firearms detected and intercepted at U.S. airports has risen for the past 10 years, with the exception of 2020, when travel diminished with the start of the pandemic. This summer, with a record-breaking number of Americans traveling, more guns and ammo are making their way into airports.

Flying with an unloaded gun and ammunition is legal in the United States, but only in a checked bag. Transportation Security Administration regulations require that any guns and ammunition be packed and locked inside a hard-sided case and that travelers declare them at baggage drop. Attempting to bring either in a carry-on bag is illegal, as well as dangerous for TSA agents and other travelers, TSA spokesperson Alexa Lopez said.

“The number-one reason we hear from people, and I kid you not, is ‘I forgot I had it in my bag,’” Lopez said.

Though shootings inside airports are rare because of fortified security, there have been reports of shootings in pre-security areas as recently as November, when a woman inside Portland International Airport in Oregon was accused of firing a gun near a TSA checkpoint.

Tim Carey, law and policy adviser at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Gun Violence Solutions, called the rise in Americans caught with improperly packed guns and ammunition a “perfect-storm situation” brought about by two factors: large-scale increases in U.S. gun ownership and states’ deregulation of firearm purchasing and possession.

In a Gallup poll last year, 30 percent of U.S. adults said they personally own a gun. A 2013 survey requested by the European Commission showed the same was true for only 5 percent of Europeans.

“There is a very justifiable increased scrutiny on Americans and guns in foreign places,” Carey said. Besides Turks and Caicos, he cited Mexico, which is suing five U.S. gun dealers for allegedly facilitating gun trafficking across the border.

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Misses by TSA

Some of the Americans who have been detained in Turks and Caicos, such as Florida resident Sharitta Grier, passed through TSA checkpoints without being stopped. In response to Grier’s case, TSA acknowledged that rounds of ammunition inside a carry-on were probably missed at Orlando International Airport.

Oklahoma resident Ryan Watson was apprehended with ammunition in Turks and Caicos after clearing TSA in Oklahoma City. TSA officials at Will Rogers World Airport made changes, including additional training, in response to a review.

According to TSA, loose ammunition can be missed when there is no firearm present, which is why gun owners should start packing with an entirely empty bag each time they travel.

Though the U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas had issued a warning about Turks and Caicos’s strict gun regulations last year, Sharon Evans said she and her husband “had no idea” about the law before their December trip.

Michael Lee Evans, who suffers from several health conditions, faced months of hearings and ultimately received a suspended 33-week sentence. Another American arrested in Turks and Caicos, Bryan Hagerich of Pennsylvania, had to wait more than 100 days in crowded jail cells and emergency apartment rentals before receiving a suspended 52-week sentence. Both received their sentences after U.S. leaders - including the governors of Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Virginia and a bipartisan congressional delegation - advocated for the release of Americans.

Stateside, large GoFundMe campaigns and anxious social media posts raised money and awareness for those arrested. Most have paid fines and received suspended sentences.

In January, TSA reported that 2023 was a record-breaking year for guns flagged at security checkpoints. A total of 6,737 firearms were detected at airports across the country, about 93 percent of which were loaded. In the first quarter of this year, TSA intercepted 1,503 firearms.

Whether it’s intentional or inadvertent, trying to pass a gun through airport security has consequences for the gun owner. TSA officers don’t confiscate firearms, but they do call local law enforcement, which can then enforce fines or criminal charges that could lead to jail time, depending on local laws.

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How state laws might be changing gun travel

Between 2019 and 2021, an estimated 7.5 million Americans became new gun owners. However, the vast majority of guns purchased during that time were bought by people who already owned one. On average, approximately 1.9 million firearms were purchased per month between January 2020 and April 2021. Just 300,000 of those went to first-time buyers.

“Following covid, there are millions of excess firearms relative to what we would have expected in a country already inundated with firearms,” said Michael D. Anestis, a professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health and executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center. “If there’s more firearms, then there are more opportunities for people to, even unintentionally, bring a firearm with them to a TSA checkpoint.”

A 2022 Supreme Court decision then opened the door for legal challenges against state attempts to regulate or limit how people can carry their firearms in public.

“States that are more conservative and more centered on a pro-gun facet have been virtually stripping away their entire regulations or imposing laws to prohibit future regulations,” Carey said. The looser regulations and habits around improper gun storage, he said, mean “we’re going to see more guns in places where they shouldn’t be.”

The Turks and Caicos travelers, for example, all lived in states with relatively scant firearm regulations, Carey said. Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Virginia have neither safe-storage requirements nor license or permit requirements for firearm purchases, advocacy groups say.

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An issue of responsibility

Beyond security issues, gun ownership experts say it’s simply poor form to skirt laws for travelers.

“To assume that just because you have a firearm, that you can take it anywhere, any place, any time … it’s just not responsible,” said Tom O’Connor, a board member of the Oregon-based Gun Owners for Responsible Gun Ownership. “If you’re going to travel, firearm outside the home, you need to know what the safety rules are, what the firearm regulations are.”

Hagerich, the traveler from Pennsylvania, describes himself as a responsible gun owner who had a slip-up. He keeps his firearms in a separate room protected by two sets of locks and keys and an alarm system, precisely out of an “utmost respect for firearms and ammunition.”

“I am one of the most responsible individuals with firearms. … So, it’s not like we’re reckless individuals here,” Hagerich told The Post in a phone interview. “I’m a human. I make mistakes. We all make mistakes. Unfortunately, mine was a mistake that had very, very, very severe consequences.”

But gun-owning advocates for gun safety said that forgetting a firearm while traveling - even when a gun owner takes great care otherwise - is reckless, especially given that there are legal ways to travel with them.

“I think it’s recklessness and disrespect for laws,” said Paul Kemp, a founding member of Gun Owners for Responsible Gun Ownership. As a lifelong gun owner, he said, “I’d be even more concerned about getting everything right.”

Peter Gurfein, 75, has hunted for more than 50 years and frequently travels with his firearms across the United States. Whenever he does, he said, he locks his guns in a four-padlocked, hard-sided case and gets to the airport four hours early to avoid any problems. TSA regulations are “very efficient,” he said. “There’s no excuse for someone not following TSA regulations.”

Gurfein said a responsible gun owner is one who knows where their gun is at all times. “That’s basic safety. And for someone to say they don’t know where their gun is, is one of the most irresponsible things I can imagine,” he said.

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