Legal Blog


Concealed & Carrying On: A Guide to Philadelphia Airport Gun Charges

May 16 2023, by Michael Fienman in Firearms/Weapons, Legal Blog

Airport security aims to ensure the safety of the many people who fly into and out of the city. The average person cannot, and understandably so, carry a firearm through Philadelphia International Airport. But it happens almost every day. These incidents are happening more and more, often complicating the lives of otherwise law-abiding people for what usually amounts to a lapse in judgment in a rush to pack their suitcases.

People carry firearms more regularly nowadays, but unintentionally carrying a weapon through airport security can still result in severe consequences, including hefty fines, arrest, and a criminal conviction. Travelers must understand the legal implications of such charges and the importance of seeking skilled legal representation if it happens.

In this article, we’ll unpack the intricacies of TSA gun charges at the Philadelphia Airport so you don’t become a statistic or cautionary tale.

Gun Charges in Philadelphia Airports

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 to the 20s in 2020. Then, in 2021, 39 firearms were found at the Philadelphia International Airport. That number continued to rise in 2022, when authorities caught 44 guns.

According to TSA, 6,542 firearms were found at airport checkpoints nationwide in 2022. That’s about 18 per day – an all-time high for guns found at US airports. The majority of them were loaded.

How Travelers Unknowingly Carry Guns into Airports

The most common reason guns are found in airports is a lack of awareness by the owner. This unintentional gun possession may be an accident, but it can still lead to criminal charges and significant civil fines by the TSA.

For instance, John, an avid target shooter and frequent flyer, is heading out on a business trip. In his haste to pack, he grabs his backpack, which he used at the gun range a few days prior. Unbeknownst to him, a small handgun is still in one of the backpack’s compartments.

John proceeds through airport security, confident that he has followed all the rules and regulations. However, as his bag goes through the X-ray machine, the TSA agents discover the hidden firearm. Despite his genuine surprise and explanation that it was an honest mistake, John may still be detained and fined for bringing a concealed weapon into the airport.

Some people who bring weapons to the airport are also confused about properly transporting a firearm. Firearms can be transported on airplanes; however, owners must follow specific regulations when storing and carrying them through security.

Some concealed carry permit holders mistake their rights to include the ability to carry their firearms on an airplane or into an airport terminal. Understanding your rights and storing your firearms properly when going to the airport is essential to prevent issues with the TSA and criminal gun charges.

The TSA Policy on Firearms and Ammunition

Airports are generally considered “sterile” areas, where firearms should not be carried about a person’s body as concealed weapons. In fact, airplane carry-on restrictions prohibit firearms and any part of a firearm or ammunition from being in the airplane’s cabin.

Pursuant to 49 USC §46505, if a weapon is taken on a plane, it must be unloaded, locked in a hard-shell case, declared at check-in, and checked with luggage to go under the cabin.

Other Prohibited Items & Carry-On Restrictions

There is a long list of TSA prohibited items that may not be transported in an airplane cabin, or they must be declared. Some of those include:

  • Loaded firearms
  • 3D printed guns
  • Gun frames
  • Receivers
  • Ammunition
  • Axes and hatchets
  • Bows and arrows
  • Machetes
  • Throwing stars
  • Swords
  • Knives
  • Explosives
  • Fireworks
  • Incendiaries

Some items may be checked and placed in luggage under the main cabin; however, some are entirely prohibited on the airplane.

Criminal & TSA Penalties

Whether it’s a result of a simple oversight or a deliberate act, bringing a gun to the airport can have serious implications, including criminal charges and substantial fines imposed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Criminal Penalties for Bringing a Gun to the Airport

There are multiple criminal charges that an individual may incur if they bring a gun to an airport. The Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act details the standard charges assessed on people who receive airport gun incident charges.

  • Section 6105: Possession of a gun or firearm by a “prohibited” person. This is possession of a gun by someone who has been convicted under certain Pennsylvania laws, typically violent felonies like aggravated assault, robbery, or burglary.
  • Section 6106: Possession of a gun or firearm without a permit to carry involves illegally possessing a firearm without a license. This is typically a first-degree misdemeanor in Pennsylvania, but it may be bumped up to a felony if other offenses are also involved.
  • Section 6108: 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 upon any public property.”
  • Section 5503: Disorderly conduct. If neither section applies, a person with a gun in a Pennsylvania airport may still be charged with disorderly conduct.

TSA Civil Penalties for Violating Firearms Policies

The TSA does not assess criminal penalties but can apply civil penalties in the form of a steep fine and a suspension or disqualification from TSA PreCheck screening. The fine and any other administrative action depends on the case details. The fine can be as much as $14,950 per violation per person involved, but is usually assessed at $3,000 or less in my experience.

Weapon Confiscation

In nearly all cases, if you are caught at the airport with a gun or other prohibited item, you will face weapon seizure. Airport police will immediately confiscate the item.

Handling a Gun Discovery at the Airport

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 immediately requesting a criminal defense attorney to help navigate the legal process and protect your rights.

Your Firearm Rights & Possible Defenses

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 Role of a Defense Lawyer

Working with a gun charges lawyer who can help you understand the charges against you, review your specific circumstances, and navigate the system is essential. After all, the TSA is a large and complex organization. Dealing with the administration alone is not recommended,
You will also face state and federal penalties, which a Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney will understand and help you avoid.

It’s easy to see bringing a gun to the airport, even by accident, as an open and shut case, but there is a lot a lawyer can do. It may be possible to get your charges reduced or dismissed. Even if there is significant evidence, it is beneficial to negotiate with the prosecutor to achieve the best outcome possible.

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 can communicate with the authorities and advocate for alternatives to prison time and hefty fines. Criminal conviction and civil penalties can be avoided when your lawyer uses creative defense strategies.

How to Avoid Gun Charges at the Airport

You can take preventable measures to avoid airport gun charges and civil penalties. You should know state and federal laws punish offenders for carrying firearms and other prohibited items at the airport. Additionally, each airline has different policies for how to handle guns on their airplanes.

Ensure you properly pack and declare any firearms you are taking with you on a trip. Remember that firearms should never be taken as carry-on items in the main cabin of a plane. Instead, they should be packed as luggage and placed under the cabin in the cargo area.
Before travel, you should always double-check luggage, purses, backpacks, and carry-on items and bags. You should pack your bags and know what is in them. If you routinely carry a loaded or unloaded firearm, make sure it is left at home or packed properly and checked for transport in the airplane’s cargo hold.

Contact Fienman Defense If You Are Found with a Firearm at the Philly Airport

Whether intentional or not, it is way too easy for an innocent traveler to unwittingly face criminal charges and steep TSA fines for a simple oversight. In such situations, seeking the assistance of experienced legal counsel is crucial in navigating the process and mitigating the potential for steep fines and time in jail. By staying informed and vigilant about airport firearm regulations, travelers can minimize risk and make their flights unencumbered by such daunting charges.

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.

For a free and confidential consultation, call (215) 839-9529.

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.