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A plane takes off at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Sean Peick)

PHOENIX - Authorities confiscated 54 guns at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport checkpoints in 2012. The third highest total in the nation, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

Sky Harbor followed Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which had 95 confiscations, and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, which had 80.

Sky Harbor had 44 gun confiscations in 2011.

Four guns were confiscated at Tucson International Airport in 2012, down from 16 the year before, while security at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport confiscated three guns last year compared to one in 2011.

TSA checkpoints confiscated 1,525 guns nationally in 2012, up 16 percent from 2011 and 36 percent from 2010, according to the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative, which tracks and analyzes the agency's data.

The most common type of weapon confiscated nationally and at Sky Harbor was a .38-caliber handgun, according to the TSA.

Robert Baker, program chair for Global Security & Intelligence Studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, said state gun laws may play a role in the top of the rankings.

"Those top three airports are in states with laws that allow people to carry weapons for personal defense, publicly and on their person," Baker said.

In Arizona, those who are 21 and older may carry concealed weapons without a permit.

"I don't think there's enough statistics out there to show a direct relationship between rise of confiscations in relation to shootings like Newtown," Baker said. "If more people are legally carrying that means there is more of a likelihood someone would carry it aboard an aircraft."

Nico Melendez, a TSA spokesman, agreed, noting that the most-referenced excuse from passengers found with guns at security checkpoints is forgetfulness.

"These are gun owners of America," Melendez said. "I don't think there's cause for concern in terms of aviation security because our employees are there to find these things."

The TSA allows passengers to fly with guns that are unloaded and stored in hard-sided checked baggage. All firearms, including accompanying ammunition and firearm parts, are prohibited in carry-on baggage.

When TSA workers find guns and other illegal items on a passenger or in carry-on baggage, the agency has the legal authority to assess civil penalties up to $10,000, Melendez said. The TSA then calls local law enforcement to assess whether there was criminal intent.

"The passenger is not really committing a crime unless they are intentionally bringing the gun into a secure area," said Sgt. Chuck Trapani of the Mesa Police Department, citing a state law against intentionally carrying, possessing or exercising control over a deadly weapon in a secured area of an airport.

If there was no criminal intent, a passenger may check the firearm in luggage or give it to a family member or friend who is not flying, Trapani said.

"Almost every item can be transported from point A to point B," Melendez said. "The key is communicating with the airline that there's a handgun in the bag and following correct procedure."

Beyond listing instructions online for transporting weapons, Baker said more public outreach, like an aggressive public relations campaign on behalf of airport security, would help reduce the number of confiscations.

"I think it's an education process outside the airport," he said. "You have to catch passengers before they get to the airport."

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