Packing Heat at Sky Harbor: Phoenix Airport No. 5 for Firearm Finds

Sky Harbor is among the leading airports in the U.S. for guns spotted during security screenings. TSA agents find plenty of other prohibited weapons, too.
Sky Harbor is among the leading airports in the U.S. for guns spotted during security screenings. TSA agents find plenty of other prohibited weapons, too. Matt Hennie
Long before the terrorist attacks of 9/11 made airport security much more visible and often confusing, accessible concealed weapons were not allowed on planes. It’s been the law since 1961.

Yet the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced this month that it broke another record nationally for finding firearms in passengers’ carry-on bags. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport was among the nation's leading airports for firearm discoveries.

Sky Harbor had the fifth-highest number of guns seized in 2022 among all airports in the nation, with 196 guns seized — the same as in 2021. With 18.6 million travelers going through airport security, that equates to a firearm discovered for every 95,096 travelers screened.

Arizona's seven airports had a total of 230 guns discovered in 2022, which is three fewer than were found in 2021. TSA found guns at Sky Harbor and three other airports: 22 guns at Tucson International Airport, 11 at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, and one at Flagstaff Pulliam Airport.

It might not seem like a big percentage given the number of travelers, but Sky Harbor is significantly above average. Across the U.S. in 2022, TSA officers found 6,542 firearms at 262 different airports. That’s one firearm for every 116,394 travelers screened, with about 761 million passengers and crew screened last year.

The airport with the most TSA firearm discoveries? Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport topped the list with 448 firearm finds — the most ever recorded at any airport in a single year since TSA was created in 2001.

Others in the top five: Dallas Fort Worth International Airport with 385, George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston with 298, and Nashville International Airport with 213. Orlando International Airport, Denver International Airport, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, and Tampa International Airport round out the top 10.

And the weapons don't stop. TSA agents have already discovered 15 guns at Sky Harbor in January, according to Patricia Mancha, the TSA spokesperson for Arizona.
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Whether you're arrested for having a gun in your carry-on luggage at Sky Harbor depends on a variety of factors, according to Phoenix police.
Lauren Cusimano

Take it (Home) or Leave it

So what happens if TSA officers find a gun during the security check?

First, TSA agents never handle or confiscate guns. “If they see what looks like a firearm, the inspection stops,” Mancha said. “Nobody looks inside the bag. The reason for that is the chain of custody.”

TSA officers call the Phoenix Police Department, and their officers access any luggage with a weapon. Whether a gun in a piece of luggage results in an arrest depends on several factors, according to Sgt. Brian Bower, a Phoenix police spokesperson.

A “criminal matter may occur if [Phoenix police] finds the gun is stolen” or if the owner is a “prohibited person” and not allowed to carry or possess a gun, Bower said in an email. “Other circumstances may be assaults [or] threats with the gun. There are several reasons a criminal complaint may occur at the airport," he added.

But most of the time, Bower explained, the owner is told to take the gun home or give it to a friend or family member.

That doesn’t mean the gun owner is off the hook. The TSA can issue a civil penalty of up to nearly $15,000 and revoke a person’s TSA PreCheck temporarily — or permanently, if they’re a repeat offender.

All of this prompts the question: If it’s generally understood by now that a full-size tube of toothpaste isn’t allowed through security, what makes people think a gun is OK?

Mancha said states with more liberal gun laws tend to have more firearm discoveries during screening. “In those states, people tend to grab their keys, their wallet, and their gun when they leave their home,” she said.

Arizona has some of the least stringent gun laws in the U.S.

“One of the things that’s a little disturbing from a security standpoint is that the excuses we hear are kind of lame, when you think about it. ‘I forgot it was in my bag.' 'It’s not my bag, it’s my spouse’s bag.' 'I hadn’t used this bag in a long time, and didn’t realize the gun was there,'" Mancha said.

She did point out, though, that people can travel with their weapons. "You can travel with your gun, with guidelines: unloaded, packed in a hard-sided case, with a lock, in checked luggage," Mancha said.

It’s also mandatory to file a declaration form with the airline when transporting a firearm in a checked bag. “If a gun is in there and somebody did not declare it, that person is also subject to a fine,” she added.

Yet when packing luggage or a gun, it's important to heed those pervasive announcements that are broadcast at the airport: “It is every travelers’ responsibility to pack their own luggage, whether it’s their carry-on or their checked luggage," Mancha sad.

“We did have one person say their three-year-old had packed their luggage, and it had a gun in it. I’d like to think if people are responsible gun owners, they know where their gun is at all times. It’s not a toy," she added.
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TSA agents spotted an eye-popping array of weapons at Sky Harbor during a week-long stretch in January.
Matt Hennie

‘Lots of Liquor’

In addition to firearms, Mancha said people try to bring all kinds of items through security that aren’t allowed, with water bottles at the top of the list. Other items include knives, snow globes, blenders, cast iron skillets, commemorative baseball bats, power tools, chainsaws, machetes, Swiss Army knives, stun guns, pepper spray, throwing stars, throwing knives, axes, and alcohol.

“Lots and lots of liquor," Mancha added.

On Tuesday, Mancha stood in Sky Harbor's Terminal 4 next to a display of prohibited items spotted by TSA agents during screenings. The banquet-size table was filled with an eye-popping array of weapons: large knives with serrated blades, magazines for ammunition, brass knuckles, a stun gun, a belt equipped with a knife, and a sledgehammer. TSA agents discovered all of the prohibited items during screenings at the Phoenix airport in the last week, she said.

TSA officers don't confiscate weapons, Mancha said. Instead, they give travelers the option to leave the line and take their items with them or surrender them. “Because travelers come to the airport with limited time to spare, they end up abandoning their articles,” she said. Those articles are later sold with the proceeds going to the airport.

As for hygiene or food products, Mancha offers this tip: “If you can spill it, spray it, pour it, or pump it,” more than 3.4 ounces is not allowed in carry-ons. As an example, she explained, avocados are allowed but guacamole isn’t because it can spill. A small snack pack of peanut butter and crackers is fine, but don’t try to travel with a jar of peanut butter.

For anyone who’s still not sure what’s allowed through security, TSA has a searchable list online as well as various ways to contact TSA for questions, including "Ask TSA" via Twitter or Messenger.

"The key is, we want the traveling public to know that we’re a source and a resource for them," Mancha said.
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Geri Koeppel is a professional writer, voracious reader, devoted traveler, and an amateur cook, wine drinker, birder and tennis player. She's lived and worked in Detroit, San Francisco, and Phoenix.
Contact: Geri Koeppel

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