Skip to main content

Flights delayed after 'accidental discharge' of gun prompts panic at Atlanta airport

Show Caption

A passenger's gun went off in an "accidental discharge" at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport's main security checkpoint Saturday afternoon, causing panic at the busy airport and prompting an investigation.

The discharge happened around 1:30 p.m., according to the Transportation Security Administration.

A transportation safety officer discovered a "prohibited item" while X-raying a passenger's bag at the main checkpoint and began a bag search, the TSA said in a statement. As the officer opened the compartment containing the prohibited item, the passenger "lunged into the bag and grabbed a firearm, at which point it discharged," the TSA said.

Hartsfield-Jackson Airport officials called the incident an "accidental discharge."

The passenger ran out the airport exit with the firearm, according to the TSA. Airport officials said there was no active shooter. Officials identified the suspect as Kenny Wells, 42, and said they are "actively pursuing this individual" at a news conference Saturday.

"We're fortunate that when the firearm went off that nobody was seriously injured," Robert Spinden, TSA federal security director for Georgia, said at a news conference.

According to Atlanta police, three people requested medical attention. They included one person who reported falling and two with shortness of breath. 

The noise sent social media into a frenzy as visitors posted videos to Twitter of the resulting chaos. A ground stop temporarily halted flights to Atlanta from other airports. The Atlanta Police Department gave an all-clear around 3:30 p.m., and normal operations resumed.

An investigation into the incident is ongoing, officials said. 

Maj. Reginald Moorman, commander of the airport precinct for the Atlanta Police Department, said there are multiple warrants related to Saturday's incident out for Wells' arrest.

The Transportation Security Administration said it seized 391 firearms at Hartsfield-Jackson airport in the first nine months of 2021. That’s up from 220 last year when passenger counts were down because of the pandemic. It’s also a big jump from 2019, when 323 firearms were seized in Atlanta.

Across the nation, the TSA said, it stopped 4,495 airline passengers from carrying firearms onto their flights by Oct. 3 of this year, surpassing the record of 4,432 firearms caught at checkpoints in all of 2019.

The agency announced the 2021 figures in a news release and noted the record comes despite a dip in passengers because of the pandemic. The release did not offer an explanation or theory about the spike in gun seizures.

"Firearms, particularly loaded firearms, introduce an unnecessary risk at checkpoints, have no place in the passenger cabin of an airplane, and represent a very costly mistake for the passengers who attempt to board a flight with them," the TSA said. 

Travelers may carry firearms in checked baggage if they are unloaded and packed in a locked, hard-sided case. Travelers must present the case at the airline's check-in counter and let an airline representative know they intend to travel with the firearm, according to the TSA.  

As of 7 p.m. EST Sunday, there were more than 380 delayed flights tied to the airport,  according to flight tracker FlightAware.

The airport is the busiest in the USA, with more than 110 million passengers in 2019. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported this week that Hartsfield-Jackson expected a surge of travelers for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, leading to airport crowds.

Contributing: The Associated Press