What happens to weapons confiscated at the airport?

More than 5,000 items are confiscated at Los Angeles Airport each day; this is just a sampling.
More than 5,000 items are confiscated at Los Angeles Airport each day; this is just a sampling.
David McNew/Getty Images

If you have ever flown on an airplane, you are well aware of the convoluted rules concerning prohibited items. It's easy to get confused. But who in their right mind would try to board a plane with an AK-47 or a 2-foot machete?

A lot of people, as it turns out. Every day people try to board airplanes with weapons. From 2002 to 2005, U.S. airport security confiscated an average of 14,000 potential weapons daily [source: Davidson].

So what happens when you and your prized Swiss Army knife are separated at the airport? And what is the fate of the other millions of weapons seized each year?

First, a disclaimer: Countries vary widely on their airport security policies, making it hard to generalize about the fate of you and your knife. This article deals primarily with weapons prohibited onboard U.S. and European flights. Even in the U.S. and Europe, though, the particular airport and the security lane may determine what happens to your treasured tool.

While especially dangerous weapons, such as loaded, unlicensed guns, usually are kept as evidence in prosecutions or destroyed, your knife could be returned to you or held at the airport gift shop for you to pick up later. Otherwise, it could be auctioned on eBay, sold at a state surplus supply store or donated to a local Boy Scout troop.

On certain airlines, some items that aren't allowed as carry-ons are permitted in checked baggage if passengers declare them. If you forget to declare said weapon, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) may take pity on you and let the weapon through. However if the airport screener is unwilling to overlook your mistake, you'll likely never see your weapon again. It's up to the employee's discretion.

If you and your knife aren't reunited, it's likely to be funneled to one of the state surplus warehouses scattered across the country that accept weapons "voluntarily abandoned to the TSA" [source: CBS]. Once there, items are auctioned to the public in a retail-like store at the warehouse or through an online auction site like eBay.

It turns out that collecting confiscated items from airports and reselling them is a profitable business. Find out which state's auctions have earned it the envious title of an eBay "PowerSeller" on the next page.

Become a millionaire! Sell confiscated weapons on eBay!

Workers transfer boxes full of confiscated items like knives, razors and water guns. See something you like? Check your state surplus warehouse!
Workers transfer boxes full of confiscated items like knives, razors and water guns. See something you like? Check your state surplus warehouse!
David McNew/Getty Images

So, you were flying out of Kennedy International Airport in New York and your trusty Swiss Army knife was tossed in the box beside the screening area, along with all the others. Where does it go next?

Within a short amount of time, you probably will see your knife drawing bids online because Kennedy's items get sent to an eBay "PowerSeller" by the name of "pastatesurplus" in Harrisburg, Penn. According to eBay's Web site, "PowerSellers rank among the most successful sellers in terms of sales and customer satisfaction."

The Pennsylvania warehouse, run by the state government's Department of General Services, collects confiscated items from 12 different airports in five states and sells them on eBay [source: CBS]. Since it started using eBay in 2004, the warehouse has made hundreds of thousands of dollars. In its first year using the online auction site, the items brought in $120,000 to Pennsylvania state's general fund [source: Fox].

The Harrisburg warehouse, which also ends up with more innocent objects like bowling balls and sombreros, has even started creatively packaging the items in bundles designed to encourage sales. An all-purpose Leatherman tool, a hunting knife, a flashlight and a rope were marketed as a "hunting-season kit," while hockey sticks, pucks and a goalie's mask were promoted during the hockey playoffs.

In addition to Pennsylvania, several other states participate in the reselling of weapons. Kentucky collects from eight airports, New Hampshire from four, Alabama from 14, Texas from seven and Illinois from up to six [source: Eng]. Georgia, Oregon, California, Washington and North Carolina and South Carolina also accept items [source: Eng, Kalil].

Airports in states whose warehouses don't accept airport goodies either send their items to other warehouses or destroy them. They are missing out though. While the states listed here may not be PowerSellers, they do a brisk business. New Hampshire for instance made $26,000 in one year, Illinois $33,000 and California $62,000 [source: AP, Kalil, Milwaukee].

Some of the weapons, sometimes more accurately called tools, are offered to government agencies or non-profit groups before selling them to the public. Both Kentucky and Washington, for example, let police and fire departments sift through the tools first. Such public protection agencies often find useful items like knives, tools and stun guns that would cost much more retail. California, meanwhile, donated hundreds of bottles of pepper spray to an abused women's group, while Washington donated Swiss Army knives to Boy Scouts and fingernail clippers and files to homeless shelters.

If you're curious about the other interesting items that TSA screeners collect at airports that may end up at a warehouse near you, follow the links on the next page.

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More Great Links


  • Associated Press. "Airport contraband on sale at state surplus warehouse." Sept. 9, 2006. (April 3, 2008). http://www.boston.com/news/local/new_hampshire/articles/2006/09/09/airport_contraband_on_sale_at_state_surplus_warehouse/
  • CBS. "Confiscated Airport Items Bring Cash." CBS News. Aug. 12, 2006. (April 2, 2008).http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/08/12/national/main1890143.shtml
  • Davidson, Lee. "Confiscations at airports rise." Deseret Morning News. July 30, 2005. (March 31, 2008)http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,600152118,00.html
  • Eng, Heather. "Leftover Loot." Budget Travel. 2008. (April 2, 2008)http://travel.yahoo.com/p-interests-20727057;_ylc=X3oDMTFrZXJjazY1BF9TAzI3MTYxNDkEX3MDMjcxOTQ4 MQRwb3MDMQRzZWMDZnAtdG9kYXltb2QEc2xrA2xvb3Q
  • Fox, Jon. "Pa. makes a bundle on eBay, sells airport contraband online." Times Leader. July 14, 2005. (April 2, 2008)http://www.dgs.state.pa.us/surp_prop/lib/surp_prop/in_the_news/times_leader.pdf
  • Gillespie, Nick. "Artifact: TSA-Inspired Art." Reasononline. January 2008. (April 2, 2008)http://reason.com/news/show/123525.html
  • Kalil, J.M. "Airport security sparks resale market for confiscated goods." Las Vegas Review-Journal. Jan. 28, 2004. (March 31, 2008)http://www.usatoday.com/travel/news/2004-01-28-confiscated_x.htm
  • Locke, Christopher. "Christopher Locke's Heartless Machine." 2008. (April 2, 2008) http://heartlessmachine.com/home.html
  • Magney, Reid. "TSA sells, donates confiscated airport items." La Crosse Tribune. July 30, 2005. (April 2, 2008)http://lacrossetribune.com/articles/2005/07/30/news/02airports.txt
  • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Wisconsin to Unload Airport Leftovers Using eBay." Aug. 5, 2005. (April 2, 2008)http://server.admin.state.mn.us/resource.html?Id=17541