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How to fly with a gun: TSA advice on what you can and can't do, and how to pack safely

Michael Salerno
Arizona Republic
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Brass knuckles. Pepper spray. A novelty belt with a knife blade at the buckle.

The Transportation Security Administration flagged all of those items recently at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, showing how some travelers may not realize they can't pack weapons in carry-on bags.

TSA staff displayed the voluntarily surrendered items on Jan. 24 at Terminal 4 while discussing the right and wrong way to travel with firearms and knives. While some (but not all) weapons will fly, trying to get them through security in a carry-on bag is tempting fate at best, and can lead to jail time and fines at worst.

At one point while a security officer talked about prohibited items, a recording played over the loudspeaker reminding people it's against federal law to board an aircraft with a firearm and/or ammunition.

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Phoenix is among top 5 airports for guns found by TSA

In 2022, TSA screeners found 6,542 firearms in carry-on luggage at 262 airports nationwide. That was a new high, surpassing the 5,972 guns found in 2021.

Sky Harbor ranks fifth in the nation for screeners finding guns in carry-ons, behind only Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Nashville. TSA recorded 196 firearms found at the Phoenix airport in both 2021 and 2022, up from a previous high of 132 in 2019.

TSA finds about one gun for about every 80,000 passengers at Sky Harbor Airport, TSA spokeswoman Patricia Mancha said.

"We find convicted felons who shouldn't have a gun," she said. "We find guns with no serial numbers that may have been used in a crime."

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What happens when TSA finds a gun?

Two things will spark the TSA to call the police on a passenger, and one of them is finding a firearm in a carry-on bag, Mancha said. The other? Illegal drugs. Screeners don't actively look for drugs, but will flag them if they're found while searching a bag.

When a screener finds a gun, the screening stops and police take over. The police may or may not charge the passenger with criminal penalties. Regardless of what the police do, the TSA can impose civil penalties for bringing a prohibited item to a security checkpoint. For firearms, that's a fine of $1,500-$5,370 if unloaded and $3,000-$10,700 if loaded, or if the gun is unloaded but the ammunition is accessible.

Mancha recalls seeing "every kind" of gun in carry-on screenings, from revolvers to semiautomatic firearms and personalized or customized guns like one she saw that was colored pink.

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What happens if a prohibited weapon is found in a carry-on?

In most cases, the TSA offers passengers three options for removing a prohibited item found during screening:

  1. The passenger can pack the item in a checked bag.
  2. The passenger can bring the item back to their vehicle or leave it with someone who is not traveling.
  3. The passenger can voluntarily surrender the item to the TSA.

Some people voluntarily surrender the weapon because they didn't budget enough time before their flights to allow for one of the other options, Mancha said. TSA does not confiscate prohibited items.

Passengers should be aware that some items can't fly at all, even in a checked bag. One example is a torch lighter, which poses a safety threat to people and planes.

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While most prohibited items Mancha displayed Tuesday were weapons, one seemingly innocuous object represented the greatest offender: Bottled water.

The TSA limits the amount of liquid people can carry through security to 3.4 ounces because larger bottles can conceal liquid explosives, she said. Yet some people still try to pass security with larger amounts of liquids or foods that are not fully solid.

"You can bring as many avocados as you want in carry-on luggage," Mancha said. "But once it becomes guacamole, you're limited to 3.4 ounces."

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What's the right way to fly with a gun?

Firearms can only fly in checked luggage.

John Estrada, a supervisory transportation security officer with the TSA, said there are several steps gun owners must take to secure their firearms for flight:

  1. The firearm must be unloaded with the ammunition separated.
  2. The firearm must be in a hard case that can be locked and completely secured from being accessed.
  3. The firearm must be declared with the airline each time it's presented for transport as checked baggage. The airline will add a declaration form that travels with the firearm; one Estrada displayed from American Airlines read "FIREARM UNLOADED."

American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, which collectively operate more than 70% of Sky Harbor's flight capacity, both said they do not accept firearms in cases that are opened easily.

American's policies also require ammunition to be in its original packaging or in containers made of fiber, wood or metal and designed to carry small amounts of ammunition. American won't accept ammunition that's loose or contained in magazines or clips.

Can bringing a gun through security affect your TSA PreCheck status?

Yes. The TSA can strip PreCheck status from passengers if they're found to violate federal security regulations, and this includes bringing prohibited items through security.

How long a passenger is disqualified from PreCheck depends on the seriousness of the violation, according to the TSA.

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Reach the reporter at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @salerno_phx.

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