A researcher has run the numbers on the record-setting number of guns found in carry-on luggage at airport checkpoints and found some good news: given the estimated number of people who are legally carrying firearms in the United States these days, he says the rate of seizures at airport checkpoints has actually declined.
John Lott, an economist who has proposed that easing firearms regulations would reduce crime, said he believes that the steady increase in the number of firearms confiscated by the Transportation Security Administration in recent years can be explained almost entirely by the proliferation of Americans carrying firearms.
Lott, who has been collecting data on the issuance of permits to carry concealed weapons, said the number of people granted state permits to carry a handgun has jumped to more than 16.3 million people from 14.5 million just a year earlier. Plus, even more now carry because a dozen states have virtually eliminated the need for any permit, he said. In Montana, for example, a person need not have a permit to carry a concealed weapon outside the limits of cities and towns.
A comprehensive survey from the Pew Research Center recently found that about three of every 10 adults owns a firearm, and about one of every four people who owns a handgun carries it outside the home all or most of the time.
But Lott said his analysis shows that even as the number of gun-toting Americans is ballooning, the relative number of people stopped by airport security for having a firearm has declined. He also says the number was already very, very small relative to the number of air travelers and people who carry firearms.
“To get an idea of how small this rate of firearms violations is, note that we are talking about 1 firearm found in carry-on bags for every 232,190 passengers in 2015,” Lott writes on his website. He figures that, among people who legally carry firearms, there will be one person making a mistake for every 8,500 flights.
“More importantly, as far as we can tell, none of these individuals was described as representing a danger to others,” Lott said.
It’s a point that you’ll find if you go to the comments thread of any story about TSA gun seizures. Especially among a lot of gun owners the attitude is that it’s no big deal that John Q. Law-Abiding Citizen forgot he had a firearm – often a loaded firearm – in his carry-on.
“It would be more of a concern if people who were trying to get by were actually trying to get by – were actually trying to do this with some sort of malicious intent,” Lott said. “But I don’t see any indication that any of these individuals were trying to do anything bad with these guns.”
Fair point. The standard response of the passenger caught with a gun in a carry-on is a slap to the forehead and the words, “I forgot…”
But Lott and others are missing the bigger point, and one that goes beyond airport security. If you’re so careless as to have forgotten you’re carrying a lethal weapon, maybe you shouldn’t be allowed to carry one. If the government wanted to ensure that nobody brings a loaded firearm to a TSA checkpoint — especially those that have rounds chambered — then the penalties for lapses should be made more strict.
Lott said that’s a valid point, and one also addressed by economics.
“Do I agree that penalties are more likely to focus people’s attention on making sure they don’t make mistakes? Sure, I agree with that completely. Do I think it’s important that people take this responsibility seriously? Yeah, I agree with that too,” Lott said. “Maybe if you impose more of a penalty on it, people will be more careful.”
And that would be a good thing, and not just at the airport.
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