Nationwide, the Transportation Security Administration confiscates about two guns a day at U.S. airports. That’s the same number confiscated each month, on average, at Charleston International, the federal agency’s top local official said Thursday.
“I don’t know why they think they aren’t going to get caught,” said Debbie Engel, the TSA’s Charleston-based director.
The number of firearms found at Charleston International is about average for an airport its size, Engel told the Charleston County Aviation Authority during a public briefing.
Passengers around the country are known to hide guns in very creative ways to thwart detection, she added. Doll boxes, teddy bears, diaper bags, laptop cases, suitcase linings and even the undersides of wheelchairs are just some of the hiding places, Engel said.
Once a gun is detected, the person is immediately arrested and must go before a magistrate.
Almost all of them say they forgot the firearm was there, she said. It then becomes a question of criminal intent, which Engel said can be hard to prove.
“They might not be terrorists, but they might be bad guys,” Engel said, adding that they might not mean harm to the airplane and its customers but to someone else once they land.
It’s illegal for ordinary passengers to carry a gun on a plane and in an airport, she said. There are exceptions for law enforcement officers.
Engel’s briefing didn’t come as a surprise to Charleston deputy airports director Bill New, who once served as director of public safety for the airport.
He said a gun was found at Charleston International last week. He also pointed out that two-a-month average Engel referred to was calculated over time. It’s not a normal occurrence, he added.
“We can go long periods of time where we don’t have any and then there is a rash of them all at once,” New said. “Most of the guns found here were inadvertently placed in a handbag or briefcase, and they forgot about it. It’s very seldom that we find someone who is trying to conceal a gun on purpose.”
Regardless, Engel said the TSA must remain vigilant as security threats come in all forms.
“The threat is very real,” she said. “Aviation remains the No. 1 target.”
She said the state’s largest airport has not encountered anyone on the federal “no-fly” list in several years, but it occasionally comes across a passenger who requires additional screening if they are on a “watch” list or are randomly selected.
TSA employs 126 uniformed officers at Charleston International, a number that will grow as passenger volume continues to swell.
Airport officials project traffic to rise 8 percent next year to 2.7 million travelers, according to airports director Sue Stevens.
The increase has been fueled by the arrival of new carriers Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways, Boeing South Carolina’s continued expansion and the growth in tourism.
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.