More guns found at airports across U.S., Iowa in 2022

Although the numbers are lower compared to other states, more guns were found at Iowa airports, including the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids, which found six last year.


Matt Sindt

The airport security check in is seen in the Des Moines International Airport on Saturday, March 18, 2023.

Alejandro Rojas and Jack Moore

Firearm detections caught by the Transportation Security Administration increased in 2022 compared to previous years in Iowa airports.

The increases during 2022 varied among Iowa’s airports:

  • At Des Moines International Airport, 15 guns were caught, which is up from nine caught in 2021.
  • At the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids, TSA caught six guns, which is one more than the five that they caught in 2021.
  • At the Waterloo Regional Airport, one gun was caught, which was the first one caught in five years.

However, the number of Iowa airport gun interceptions is low compared to the top 10 airports in the U.S. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport had 448 guns detected, which was the most in 2022. In the remaining nine top airports, numbers ranged between 131 to 385 guns caught.

Jessica Mayle, a TSA regional spokesperson, said passengers caught with guns can slow down lines at airports. The TSA cannot arrest individuals with guns or confiscate their weapons. Instead, individuals are charged with a fine, and criminal charges are left to the discretion of local authorities.

“They’ll send an officer over, they take possession of the weapon, and then they talk to the passenger and decide what they want to do,” Mayle said. “So, the police do have discretion on whether that passenger is going to get a ticket or be arrested that day or not.”

Mayle said 88 percent of guns found in 2022 were loaded, and the TSA will impose fines on offenders, ranging from a maximum of $14,450 for a loaded gun to a maximum of $5,370 for an unloaded gun.

Despite the risks of fines and arrests for violations, some rules allow for passengers to legally carry their guns, said Pamela Hinman, director of marketing and communications at the Eastern Iowa Airport.

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“There are rules where people can, if they declare travel with a handgun or a gun. So, there are rules for that. But it’s the TSA, that’s the one that will quote unquote find those [guns] if there’s an issue when they’re going through the checkpoint,” Hinman said.

According to the TSA website, firearms may be permitted for travel if they are “unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container and transported as checked baggage only.”

Even though having an undeclared gun is a risk to people’s safety, Mayle said most of the time, the passengers had forgotten they had the gun with them.

“Overwhelmingly, we find that the passengers didn’t mean to bring the gun, they just sort of forgot that they had a gun in this bag, at this time, and they weren’t really thinking,” she said. “Again, putting some extra time in before you leave, think about, ‘Where’s my gun? Do I really need to be traveling with it today?’ It really will have good consequences for you.”

Michael Tharp, Iowa City Municipal Airport manager, said although passengers with guns risk fines and arrests when traveling through commercial airports, passengers going to a smaller airport like the Iowa City Municipal Airport can expect different rules.

The airport is a general aviation airport that services anything that isn’t commercial or military, and the airport operates under different rules, which include rules relating to firearms.

“If you’re a commercial flight at a commercial airport … there are different rules than if you are at that [fixed base operator] or at other places where there might be security standards. But the firearm, specifically the regulation, reverts to the state laws,” Tharp said.

Different states have different rules when it comes to firearms, so it’s up to the pilot to know ahead of time whether they can legally carry or not in the state they’re entering, Tharp said.

Mayle said the TSA had reached a nationwide high of detected guns but added people should feel safe since they are finding them.

“I think the number of guns we’re finding and again, the number at Iowa is certainly lower for bigger airports, but nationwide, you know, this is a big problem,” she said. “I hope one thing people take away from this is that TSA officers are good at their job, and you should feel safe because we are finding these guns.”