U.S. Transportation Security Administration seizures of guns at U.S. airports.
U.S. Transportation Security Administration seizures of guns at U.S. airports.
EVANSVILLE — Last year, Evansville Regional Airport's security checkpoint stopped 10 firearms from being brought onto aircraft, the highest number in 5 years.

That's according to U.S. Transportation Security Administration data published last week detailing firearm incidents at four Indiana airports, including Evansville Regional Airport. EVV's 10 incidents last year compare with 68 at Indianapolis International Airport, 11 at South Bend International Airport and 8 at Fort Wayne International Airport.

Indiana TSA Federal Security Director Aaron Batt said bringing a firearm to airport security checkpoints is an expensive and dangerous mistake that "far too many people are making."

An Evansville Regional Airport spokeswoman referred questions about improperly packed firearms to the TSA. 

According to government data, firearm seizures at U.S. airports have skyrocketed since 2010, when just 1,123 firearms were stopped at security checkpoints. In 2015, that figure had shot up to 2,653, and in 2022 the TSA stopped more than 6,500 firearms at checkpoints.

The surge is due to two factors, according to TSA Great Lakes spokeswoman Jessica Mayle: Increased rates of firearm ownership in the United States and better technology and training at TSA checkpoints.

"Where we're finding a lot of guns, it's areas of the country that have high rates of gun ownership, so that is part of it," Mayle told the Courier & Press. "But we are very good at this job, and we are catching these guns and our technology is improving."

The agency published figures for Evansville Regional Airport going back to 2018, when agents reportedly found just two firearms. In 2019, the TSA reported 9 firearm incidents at EVV, two in 2020, six in 2021 and 10 in 2022.

Passengers may transport firearms when they fly so long as the gun is in checked baggage, locked in a hard-sided container and declared to the airline before traveling, according to TSA guidance. 

Mayle said the TSA does not keep data tracking the number of firearms passengers legally transport each year. The agency promotes the safe transport of firearms, she said, and encourages owners to review procedures on its website.

"If you're a responsible firearm owner, this is part of that responsibility," Mayle said. "I really don't want people to think that we're discouraging people from packing guns properly and safely... But it's just never going to be in the cabin of the aircraft and it should never go through a checkpoint."

The TSA can impose civil fines on passengers who bring loaded or unloaded firearms to a security checkpoint and refer them for criminal prosecution by local authorities.

According to the TSA's civil enforcement program, the base fines for bringing a loaded firearm to a checkpoint range from $3,000 to $10,700 and can result in a criminal referral. Last month, the agency announced it had increased the maximum fine for repeat offenders to $14,950.

Bringing an unloaded firearm to a TSA security checkpoint can net a passenger a fine of between $1,500 and $5,370 and can still result in a criminal referral.

"TSA determines the penalty amount for a violation based on the circumstances in each case," the agency wrote in a December news release touting increased penalties for passengers who run afoul of its gun regulations.

The TSA considers a firearm "loaded" when both the gun and ammunition are accessible to the passenger. Local prosecutors have discretion on whether to pursue charges against those who violate gun laws, Mayle said.

According to the TSA's list of prohibited items, gun frames, receivers and 3D-printed guns are also considered firearms. Likewise, silencers, pepper spray, air guns and "realistic replicas of firearms" are listed as prohibited items.

“Our TSA officers are doing a fantastic job preventing weapons from making their way onboard to aircraft, but the responsibility falls to passengers to pack smart and keep prohibited items out of their baggage," Batt said.

Mayle encourages Evansville residents who want to transport a firearm on a plane to ask TSA agents questions if they are unsure of the rules. Firearm owners should always notify the airline a gun is stored in their checked bag and comply with airline-specific rules, she said.

"It's not really a case where we think a lot of people are maliciously trying to do something unsafe," Mayle stated. "You have to think about it being in the cabin of an airplane: It's not just what you would do with this item, but what anyone would do with that item. You just don't want to introduce risk."

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