Philadelphia International Airport is not the first place most people think of when they’re talking about a hotbed of Philadelphia gun crime. But an increasing trend has changed that. Almost every day, travelers at PHL are found to be carrying firearms through airport security.

While many of these incidents are cases of people inadvertently bringing a gun through TSA or misinterpreting the rules for traveling with a firearm, a lot of otherwise law-abiding citizens are being caught in a serious legal situation.

Even if it’s an accident, carrying a weapon through Philadelphia airport security can result in hefty fines, your arrest, and a possible criminal conviction – not to mention getting your firearm confiscated and probably missing your flight.

Firearms at Philadelphia International Airport

PHL is a bustling hub for travelers and is known as one of the most punctual airports in the world, but it continues to deal with individuals attempting to carry firearms through checkpoints illegally. Recently, for example, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers at Philadelphia International Airport prevented two individuals from carrying guns onto their flight on the same day.

How Many Guns Are Found by Philadelphia TSA?

According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the number of guns discovered at the Philadelphia International Airport checkpoints has increased over recent years. While 2017 saw more firearms confiscated by Philadelphia airport security at 35, that number decreased in 2020, largely credited to pandemic travel restrictions.

Then, in 2021, 39 firearms were found at the Philadelphia International Airport. That number continued to rise in 2022 when authorities caught 44 guns. But in 2023, Philadelphia International set the record with 45 confiscated guns.

According to the TSA, about 18 guns per day are found at US airport checkpoints. Most of them are loaded.

A Packing Oversight Can Lead to Gun Charges

The most common reason guns are found in airports is a lack of awareness by the owner. But don’t expect the TSA to be very lenient if you grabbed the wrong bag as you rushed to catch your flight or neglected to check the rules for flying with firearms.

Bringing a gun to the airport may sound like something you’d never think of doing. However, imagine you’re an avid target shooter and frequent flyer. As you head out on a business trip, you hastily grab a backpack you used at the gun range a few days prior. Unbeknownst to you, a small handgun was in one of the backpack’s compartments. As you confidently proceed through the security checkpoint, you’ll be as surprised as anyone when TSA agents discover your firearm in the X-ray machine.

Despite your genuine lack of intent and sincere explanation, you’ll still be detained and severely fined for bringing a concealed weapon into the airport. This applies to individuals with or without concealed gun carry permits because a permit does not allow a firearm to be carried through an airport checkpoint.

Penalties for Having a Gun at the Philly Airport

Airports are zones of heightened security, with stringent rules against carrying concealed weapons. The TSA’s policies are clear – firearms are prohibited in airplane cabins and must adhere to specific regulations if transported in checked baggage.

You’ll Face Criminal Firearm Charges

Under the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act, various sections outline the criminal penalties associated with unauthorized firearm possession. You may also face federal gun charges in some cases.

Here are those most seen Pennsylvania gun charges related to people having a firearm at the airport:

  • Possession of a Firearm by a “Prohibited” Person. This is possession of a gun by someone who has been convicted under specific Pennsylvania laws, typically violent felonies like aggravated assault, robbery, or burglary.
  • Possession of a Firearm without a Permit. This is typically a first-degree misdemeanor in PA, but it may be bumped up to a felony if other offenses are involved.
  • Carrying Firearms on Public Streets or Public Property. This prohibits people in Philadelphia from carrying “a firearm, rifle or shotgun at any time upon the public streets or any public property.”
  • Disorderly Conduct. If neither section applies, a person with a gun in a Pennsylvania airport may still be charged if your behavior caused public inconvenience, annoyance, alarm, or recklessly created a risk.

The TSA Also Fines You for Carrying a Firearm Through Security

In addition to possible arrest and a criminal gun conviction on your record, the TSA imposes its own civil penalties. This includes a substantial fine and possible exclusion from expedited screening programs.

The TSA’s precise fine and any other administrative actions will depend on the case details. The fine can be as much as $14,950 per violation per person involved, but it is usually assessed at approximately $3,000.

Your Gun Will Be Confiscated

In nearly all cases, if you are caught at the Philadelphia International Airport with a gun or other prohibited item, you will face immediate seizure. Airport police will confiscate the item and detain you.

Are TSA Security Checkpoints Constitutional?

Being charged for possessing your legally owned firearm will undoubtedly be jarring. But airport security searches raise an important question about your constitutional rights under the 4th Amendment, specifically regarding illegal search and seizure.

Essentially, passengers implicitly consent to searches by entering an airport and submitting to security screening, effectively waiving certain legal protections. This consent is a recognized exception to the 4th Amendment rights and is critical for ensuring airport security. Additionally, such exceptions apply to search warrants and other situations, making them legal and constitutional.

When facing charges related to the illegal possession of firearms discovered during a security screening at an airport or anywhere, it’s imperative for a criminal defense attorney to thoroughly examine all aspects of the case, including the legality of the search and the actual possession of the contraband, to build an effective defense.

What to Do If Airport Police Find a Gun in Your Luggage

If you find yourself in an unintentional gun carry situation, then it’s vital to cooperate with TSA and local law enforcement officers. Do not answer their questions or make incriminating statements, but you can follow their orders.

Your first step should be requesting a criminal defense attorney to help navigate the legal process and protect your rights.

Know Your Firearm Rights at the Airport

Even if you accidentally took a gun to the airport, you still have rights, and there are potential actions you can take to avoid the harshest punishments.

Under Pennsylvania law, you must have “intent” to commit many gun-related crimes. You may be able to defend yourself against criminal charges with the assertion that you were unaware that the gun was in your luggage. Additionally, if the weapon did not belong to you, or it wasn’t your bag, you may be able to assert that you were unaware of it.

The Critical Role of Legal Representation

If you or a loved one are in a situation where they were found to have a gun in their possession at the Philadelphia or nearby airport, the role of a skilled gun crimes attorney becomes paramount.

Legal representation can offer a strategic defense, potentially leading to reduced charges or even dismissal of the official criminal gun charges. In addition to demonstrating your lack of criminal intent and highlighting the one-time mistake the scenario probably is, a lawyer can also help mitigate the consequences from the TSA to ensure your unfortunate case of bringing a gun to the airport concludes with the best possible outcome.

How to Avoid Gun Charges at PHL

To prevent falling victim to airport firearm charges, travelers must be careful and responsible gun owners. This includes thoroughly checking luggage and adherence to state and federal laws regarding firearm transport. Additionally, each airline has its own policies for how to handle gun transport.

Ensure you properly pack and declare any firearms you are taking with you. Remember that firearms should never be taken as carry-on items in the main cabin of a plane. Here is a complete list of TSA-prohibited items.

“There is no excuse for bringing a gun to our checkpoints,” said Gerardo Spero, TSA’s Federal Security Director for the airport. “The only way to fly with your firearm is to ensure it is unloaded, packed in a hard-sided locked case, taken to the airline check-in counter, and declared. The airline will make sure it is transported in the belly of the aircraft so that nobody has access to it during a flight.”

So, before you travel, always double-check your luggage, purse, backpack, and carry-on items. You should pack your bags yourself and know what is in them. If you routinely carry a loaded or unloaded handgun, make sure it is left at home or packed correctly and checked for transport.

Contact a Philadelphia Airport Gun Lawyer

You should never talk to TSA, airport police, or any member of law enforcement on your own. They will use anything you say against you. Your attorney is the best person to communicate with the authorities on your behalf and advocate for alternatives to resolve a situation related to a gun being found at the airport.

Attorney Michael H. Fienman represents clients in criminal and traffic matters across Philadelphia, Montgomery, Bucks, Delaware, and Chester counties. Mr. Fienman is a knowledgeable resource about individual gun rights and routinely assists clients facing legal trouble related to airport firearm situations. As an experienced trial attorney, he is a zealous advocate known for relentlessly defending clients in state court, federal court, and before administrative agencies.

Call (215) 839-9529 for a free and confidential consultation.

Attorney Fienman is licensed to practice before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court of New Jersey, the US District Court for the District of New Jersey, and the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

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