The Hampden man who brought a loaded handgun into the Portland International Jetport on Friday morning in his carry-on luggage is not unusual either in Maine or nationally, as law enforcement officials are finding guns ever more frequently on travelers nationwide.
“More people are carrying guns and bringing them to airports. And 87 percent of the guns are loaded,” said Lisa Farbstein, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration. “The top excuse is they forgot they had the gun on them. The second most popular excuse is that their husband or wife packed their suitcase.”
Farbstein said she doesn’t know why people are carrying more guns.
The Hampden man, who was not named, was caught with the 9 mm handgun loaded with 19 bullets in his backpack as it went through the X-ray machine at a TSA checkpoint at the Portland jetport. He told officials he did not realize the loaded gun was in the backpack.
The TSA agent confiscated the gun. The man called his wife, who drove to the airport to pick up the handgun and take it home.
It was the first such incident this year in Maine, Farbstein said.
In 2019, airport security confiscated three firearms at the jetport’s checkpoint. On Dec. 10, a Poland man was caught with a loaded 9 mm handgun tucked into the outer pocket of a black messenger bag. On Oct. 30, a Minot woman was caught with a loaded 9 mm handgun tucked into her purse. The next day, a Florida man was found with a loaded 9 mm handgun in his knapsack as he attempted to pass through the checkpoint.
Nationwide, 4,432 firearms were discovered in carry-on bags at airport checkpoints in 2019, up from 4,239 the year before, according to the TSA.
In New England, 36 guns were confiscated in 2019, compared with 45 in 2018 and 29 in 2017. The highest number in each year were at Boston Logan International Airport.
Of the eight major New England airports, the Portland Jetport ranked fourth in the number of guns confiscated with three in 2019, four in 2018 and three in 2017.
Bangor International Airport had the fewest instances in those three years with no confiscations in 2019 and 2018, but three in 2017. However, the airport made news in May 2014 when two men were caught with handguns in their carry-on luggage within one week of each other.
Those figures pale in comparison to the largest airports in the country. The TSA said firearms were caught at 278 airport checkpoints nationwide in 2019. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International topped the list with 323 firearms discovered.
Passengers are permitted to travel with firearms in checked baggage if they are unloaded, packed in a hard-sided case, locked and packed separately from ammunition. They also must be declared at check-in with the airline.
Farbstein said the TSA does not track the number of passengers carrying firearms in checked baggage.
Anyone who brings an undeclared firearm through a checkpoint can face criminal charges and civil penalties up to $13,333, according to the TSA. A typical first offense for carrying a handgun into a checkpoint is $4,100.
Other than oversized items and liquids, the most common prohibited item caught at checkpoints is knives.
“People bring all kinds of knives. Kitchen knives. Butter knives. Fishing knives. Hunting knives. Tactical fighting knives. Cleavers,” she said. “Everyday people bring knives to a checkpoint. The difference is, knives are prohibited, but not illegal like guns.”
People caught with knives can put them in their car, have a nontraveling companion take them, put them into a checked bag, mail them home or surrender them at the checkpoint.
TSA has details on how to properly travel with a firearm posted on its website.