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The Transportation Security Administration intercepted a record number of firearms at airport security checkpoints last year in what the agency's leader called a "deeply troubling" trend.

Officers found 4,432 guns — most of them loaded — in carry-on bags or on passengers moving through checkpoints, the TSA said in a report released last week.

"The continued increase in the number of firearms that travelers bring to airport checkpoints is deeply troubling," TSA Administrator David Pekoske said. He reminded travelers that they may bring a legal firearm provided that it is unloaded, locked in a hard-side case and declared as part of checked luggage.

While the number of guns discovered last year represents a nearly 5% increase from the year before and the highest overall levels in the agency's 18-year history, University of Illinois Prof. Sheldon Jacobson cautioned that what the 2019 figures really mean isn't clear. Jacobson, who has studied aviation security system analysis for 25 years and is among the researchers whose work led to the development of the TSA PreCheck system, said TSA's concerns over the increase come without context.

"What if they found 10 firearms, or what if they found 10,000? Yes, it's a big number, but it's inconclusive," he said. "If it's increased, that means the TSA is doing a better job, potentially, of finding firearms. But it could be bad, because why are more firearms being brought to checkpoints?"

The TSA keeps data on the number of recovered guns going back to 2005, but Jacobson notes that the number of security checkpoints was significantly lower than current levels in the first several years of the agency's existence. It's not clear how many checkpoints the TSA operates.

In its collection of the top 10 airports where the most firearms were found, Tampa International Airport was least among the worst offenders with 87 guns discovered. Atlanta's airport had roughly four times as many firearms with 323 — and is also the busiest airport hub in the world.

The TSA report offered no explanation for the firearm number. In the past, officers attributed the increase in passengers bringing guns to checkpoints — most commonly with the excuse "I forgot" — to the growing number of concealed-carry permit holders.