A passenger sneaked a firearm through airport security in Atlanta earlier this month before flying with it to Tokyo. This has attracted a lot of media attention, with CNN, Time, CBS, The Hill, The Washington Post, and others publishing write-ups of the incident.
Meanwhile, we've seen a lot of stories about Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees, who are working without pay during the partial government shutdown, calling in sick. Airports in Houston and Miami have even closed down some security checkpoints.
So is the shutdown making airports less safe? Was it the stalemate in Washington, D.C., that allowed someone to slip a gun past TSA screeners?
The short answer: probably not. The story about the firearm appears to have been first reported by WSB-TV, an ABC affiliate based in the Atlanta area. On January 2, a man boarded his Delta flight to Japan with a firearm. Once he landed, he informed Delta workers that he had a gun. Delta in turn informed the TSA, who said in a statement that "standard procedures were not followed."
The TSA insists the shutdown had nothing to do with the incident. "The perception that this might have occurred as a result of the partial government shutdown would be false," the agency said in a statement to the press. "In fact, the national callout percentages were exactly the same for Wed, 1/2/19 and Wed, 1/3/18 (when there was no shutdown)—5%," an agency spokesperson added in an email to Reason.
In other words, this wasn't the shutdown; it was just normal TSA incompetence.
Sounds plausible to me. The TSA has a pretty bad track record when it comes to identifying items that could actually pose a threat. A 2015 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) investigation, for instance, revealed that in 67 out of 70 cases, undercover investigators succeeded in smuggling weapons or explosives through security.
Acting TSA Administrator Melvin Carraway lost his job as a result of that investigation, but things didn't get much better. In March 2017, a woman made it through airport security in Charlotte, North Carolina, before realizing she had forgotten to remove a loaded gun from her purse. In July of that year, KMSP reported that undercover investigators had been able to smuggle explosives or fake weapons through Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport security 16 out of 17 times. And in November 2017, another DHS investigation revealed that TSA screeners were still failing to identify test weapons at a high rate. The failure rate was "in the ballpark" of 80 percent, a source told ABC News at the time.
The TSA just isn't very good at evaluating risk. It may be great at confiscating plastic toys and bullet-shaped ice cubes. But firearms and explosives are a completely different story, shutdown or no shutdown.
This post has been updated with an emailed statement from a TSA spokesperson.