RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Six months into 2021, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers at Richmond International Airport (RIC) have caught nine firearms from individuals trying to bring the weapons through security.
Most recently, officers prevented a woman from Chesterfield County from carrying a loaded handgun onto her flight on Friday, June 18. According to a release, the gun had six bullets inside, and was detected in the X-ray machine among her carry-on items at the security checkpoint.
This comes as the number of travelers passing through security at RIC is increasing. As coronavirus-related restrictions are lifted and more people get vaccinated, travelers are likely to start flying again.
“In 2019, prior to the pandemic, we saw approximately five guns per million passengers nationwide, and then, the pandemic hit in 2020, and that rate doubled, actually,” TSA Spokesperson Lisa Farbstein said. “Keep in mind, this was when the volume at checkpoints was shrinking dramatically, and so that was unexpected, and we’re still seeing somewhat of an uptick compared to pre-pandemic.”
In April, RIC saw the most number of passengers since February of 2020. The total number of passengers in April more than doubled what the airport experienced just two months prior, in February of 2021. According to Capital Regional Airport Commission Marketing & Air Service Development Director and Public Information Officer Troy Bell, the commission will report May activity for RIC at its next meting on June 29.
But as more and more travelers decide to fly, there may be questions about the safety of doing so, as TSA prepares to screen millions of passengers, which has not happened in a single day since before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Even as the number of flyers decreased significantly in 2020 and at the start of 2021 because of the global health crisis, TSA officers at RIC caught the most number of firearms at security last year, going back at least as far as 2016.
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Although TSA does not provide monthly information for the number of firearms caught at security checkpoints by officers at a specific airport, the administration reported on May 31, 2020 that it had caught eight firearms at RIC. By July 27, 2020, that number jumped to 12.
Comparatively, in 2021, on May 11, TSA reported that its officers had caught seven firearms at security checkpoints at RIC. By June 18, that number increased to nine.
“That is more than half of what we’ve seen in all 12 months pre-pandemic,” Farbstein said. “We see that as an increase, and that is unfortunate.”
Farbstein said that the most common excuse given by individuals who are caught with a firearm at a TSA security checkpoint is that they forgot the weapon was with them. She also said that individuals will blame a significant other for packing their bag.
“Typically in the neighborhood of 80% of the guns that are caught at checkpoints are actually loaded,” Farbstein said. “We’re hearing people say that they forgot that they have a loaded gun with them.”
Farbstein said that none of these excuses are sufficient.
If and when a TSA officer detects a firearm on the X-ray machine at a security checkpoint, Farbstein said that the conveyor belt stops and police are called.
“When that happens, the people who are in line behind the individual with the firearm have to be shifted to another lane or they’re going to just stand there and wait,” she said. “It can delay other individuals and, of course, if you’re not arrested and you’re allowed to continue, that’s certainly going to delay your walk over to your gate.”
Despite the increasing rate at which TSA officers are catching guns at airport security checkpoints, including Richmond International Airport, Farbstein said that flyers are safe.
“What we’re seeing is an increase in the number of passengers, passengers who are bringing firearms to checkpoints, and TSA officers are super well-trained in terms of looking for items that could cause some harm on a plane,” she said. “That’s why, when there’s an alarm, you’re going to get a pat-down. That’s why, when there’s an alarm, your carry-on bag is going to be opened. TSA officers are catching guns. They’re catching them at a higher rate, so obviously, they’re very good at what they do.”