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Accidental Gunfire Caused a Panic at Atlanta’s Airport: What We Know

People stand out on the tarmac at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport on Saturday after accidental gunfire in the airport’s screening area led to chaos. Photo: @EmZeidler/Twitter

The “accidental discharge” of a firearm in the screening area of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport led to a brief but horrifying panic on Saturday afternoon. No one was shot, but three people were injured in the ensuing chaos, which played out in one of the world’s busiest airports on one of the busiest travel weekends of the year. The gunfire sent travelers running to find cover or flee the airport, and prompted a brief grounding of all departing flights.

What happened

The shooting scare began at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday. Robert Spinden, federal security director for the Transportation Security Administration in Georgia, said in a news conference that during a search of a traveler’s bag, a TSA official opened a compartment containing a gun. “The passenger lunged into his property, grabbing a firearm that was located inside, which ultimately discharged,” Spinden told reporters, adding that “the passenger then fled the security checkpoint through an adjacent exit lane with his firearm.”

Witnesses described a terrifying panic in the immediate aftermath, as travelers tried to find cover or escape the airport. One traveler who had already boarded their flight told CNN that “people were pushing to get on the plane that were not even on our flight. That’s how scared they were.” An hour after everything began, airport officials tried to restore calm, tweeting that “There is NOT an active shooter at the airport.” They then gave the “all-clear” around 3:00 p.m., and the airport’s normal operations resumed by 3:30 p.m.

The passenger suspected of discharging the weapon was later identified as 42-year-old Kenny Wells, according to the Atlanta Police Department. They’ve issued warrants for his arrest on multiple charges including possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

More guns have been caught at airport security checkpoints this year than ever before

The incident comes after a record-breaking number of firearms have been found by TSA agents during U.S. airport screenings this year. Travelers bringing guns to airports is a “huge problem,” TSA administrator David Pekoske told CNN. “We’ve had many more incidents where there are passenger disturbances both in checkpoints and onboard aircraft,” he said. “That makes it more important that there are no guns involved.”

According to the TSA, 4,650 firearms were found at security checkpoints in the first ten months of 2021, already breaking the previous full-year record of 4,432 firearms in 2019. A total of 450 firearms have been detected at Hartsfield-Jackson alone, more than in any other U.S. airport. Passengers are not permitted to bring firearms through airport security checkpoints and face civil penalties and possible arrest if they try — though whether offenders are prosecuted by the state the airport is located in depends on that state’s gun laws. In Georgia, the New York Times notes, a 2014 law allowed concealed weapons to be carried inside airports outside the screening areas.

Accidental Gunfire Caused a Panic at Atlanta’s Airport