WASHINGTON -- Several times every day, at airports across the nation, passengers are trying to walk through security with loaded guns in their carry-on bags, purses or pockets, even in a boot. And, more than a decade after 9/11 raised consciousness about airline security, it's happening a lot more often.
In the first six months of this year, Transportation Security Administration screeners found 894 guns on passengers or in their carry-on bags, a 30 percent increase over the same period last year. The TSA set a record in May for the most guns seized in one week -- 65 in all, 45 of them loaded, and 15 with bullets in the chamber and ready to be fired. That was 30 percent more than the previous record of 50 guns, set just two weeks earlier.
Last year, the TSA found 1,549 firearms on passengers attempting to go through screening, up 17 percent from the year before.
In response to an Associated Press request, the agency provided figures on the number of firearm incidents in 2011 and 2012 for all U.S. airports, as well as the number of passengers screened at each airport. The AP analyzed the data, as well as weekly agency blog reports on intercepted guns from this year and last year. The TSA didn't keep statistics on guns intercepted before 2011, but officials have noticed an upward trend in recent years, spokesman David Castelveter said.
Some of the details make officials shake their heads.
As one passenger took off his jacket to go through screening in Sacramento, Calif., last year, TSA officers noticed that he was wearing a shoulder holster, and in it was a loaded 9 mm pistol. The same passenger was found to have three more loaded pistols, 192 rounds of ammunition, two magazines and three knives.
Screeners elsewhere found a .45-caliber pistol and magazine hidden inside a cassette deck. Another .45-caliber pistol loaded with seven rounds, including a round in the chamber, was hidden under the lining of a carry-on bag in Charlotte, N.C. A passenger in Allentown, Pa., was carrying a pistol designed to look like a writing pen. At first, the passenger said it was just a pen, but later acknowledged that it was a gun, according to the TSA.
In March, a passenger at Bradley Hartford International Airport in Connecticut had a loaded .38-caliber pistol containing eight rounds strapped to his lower left leg. At Salt Lake City International Airport, a gun was found inside a passenger's boot, strapped to a prosthetic leg.
The TSA doesn't believe these gun-toting passengers are terrorists, but the agency can't explain either why so many passengers try to board planes with guns, Mr. Castelveter said. The most common excuse offered by passengers is "I forgot it was there."
"We don't analyze the behavioral traits of people who carry weapons. We're looking for terrorists," he said. "But sometimes you have to scratch your head and say, 'Why?' "
Ohio University-Zanesville sociology professor Jimmy Taylor, author of several books on the nation's gun culture, said some gun owners are so used to carrying concealed weapons that it's no different to them than carrying keys or a wallet.
The most common reason people say they carry guns is for protection, so it also makes sense that most guns intercepted by the TSA are loaded, Mr. Taylor said. He said many gun owners keep their weapons loaded, so they're ready if needed.
Even so, Mr. Taylor said he finds it hard to believe that airline passengers forget they're carrying guns. "My wife and I check on things like eyedrops and Chapstick, to see if we're allowed to take them on a plane," he said. "So it's a little difficult to imagine that you aren't checking the policies about your loaded firearm before you get to the airport."
Airports in the South and the West, where the American gun culture is strongest, had the greatest number of guns intercepted, according to TSA data.
"There are some Americans who believe that there are no limits, that they not only have a constitutional, but a God-given right to have a gun, and 'By gosh, if I want to bring a gun on a plane, I'm going to do it,' " said State University of New York-Cortland professor Robert Spitzer, a gun policy and gun rights expert.
The TSA's count of intercepted guns doesn't include all other kinds of banned "guns" screeners find, such as flare guns, BB guns, air guns, spear guns, pellet guns and starter pistols. Screeners find half a dozen to several dozen stun guns on passengers or in their carry-on bags each week.
Passengers are allowed to take a gun along when they fly, but only as checked baggage. They are required to fill out a form declaring the weapon and carry it in a hard-sided bag with a lock.