In this post, I’m going to share some of my experience gained from traveling all over the United States with guns. I’ve flown with guns frequently and driven coast to coast with them as well. While such travel requires some planning and preparation, it is usually easily accomplished. I must preface what follows with the statement that I am not a lawyer, and none of this post constitutes legal advice!
Flying with firearms is a frequent topic that I’m asked about, and for many that have never done so, it is a subject that causes a great deal of apprehension. Let me assure you, with proper planning, there is no reason for concern. On virtually every domestic flight I’ve taken over the past 18 years, I’ve traveled with firearm(s) in my checked luggage.
I’ve only had a bag lost once, but it was quickly found. (Trust me, telling airline personnel that an easily identifiable item in your luggage is a Glock 19 gets their attention damned fast!) Nonetheless, the loss of your baggage and firearm is a possibility; not necessarily a probability, which must be acknowledged. There are a few steps that you can take to minimize this possibility. First, plan your flights with as few stops as possible, preferably none. Multiple layovers or connecting flights that are closely scheduled have a higher probability of delayed or misplaced luggage. With current Bluetooth technology, there are now mini transponders that you can pair with your smartphone to ensure that your luggage or gun case is actually on the plane with you. Some even have features that allow you to locate your bags if they are lost or misplaced… A specific example that I know of is the tile app.
Another infrequent occurrence, theft of a firearm, can be planned for as well. When you are carrying a pistol in your checked baggage, I suggest using a lock box that has a cable attachment. Loop the cable through the framework inside your bag so that a thief would be forced to take the entire bag rather than just enjoying the convenience of stealing only the lock box. Many advocate removing and carrying separately a critical component such as firing pin or barrel so that even if the weapon is stolen, it is not easily returned to firing condition without the missing parts. All of the above steps will help to discourage theft and ensure that thieves don’t have access to a functional gun.
As to exact procedures, always reference and defer to current TSA and specific airline guidelines, but as of this writing, you are required to transport your gun unloaded in a hard sided locking case. You will have to declare your unloaded firearm at check in and sign a declaration form that will be placed with your firearm during transit. You may place multiple firearms in a single case. You are also allowed to transport ammunition in your checked luggage, up to 11 pounds. It is best and easiest to transport ammunition in factory packaging.
How this works in practice is that after you approach the ticket counter, simply tell the ticket agent that you need to declare an unloaded firearm in your baggage. Depending on what part of the country you’re in, the agent’s familiarity with the procedure may vary, but I’ve never had a problem in any of the many airports that I’ve flown out of. The agent will give you a small orange form to fill out with your name, address, and flight info, and you will have to show that the firearm is unloaded. Don’t worry about alarming other passengers, it’s none of their business anyway. After that, you will secure your firearm in the locked case inside your bag and then lock your bag with a non TSA lock that only you have the keys to. Leave some extra time at check in as you will generally be asked to stay nearby for a few minutes until your bag clears the TSA screening. Occasionally I’ve been asked to unlock my luggage for this inspection. The final step is to enjoy your flight and claim your bag at your destination.
(A funny story is appropriate here… Recently when flying, I approached the ticket counter and stated that I needed to declare a firearm… The ticket agent gave me a triplicate form that I had never seen before. I questioned her about it, stating that it looked different than what I was accustomed to. She told me that yes, the form had been recently updated… Upon closer inspection, I realized that she had given me the form that law enforcement officers and Federal Air Marshals must fill out to fly armed! Apparently, I must look the part!)
If you are transporting a long gun in a separate case, the procedure is essentially the same with the exception that the case is your luggage. Pick a case that is nondescript and not necessarily a rifle or shotgun case. Plenty of people fly with golf clubs, scuba gear, musical instruments, or ski equipment.
A few words about departures, destinations, and layovers are in order. While theoretically legal, I would not attempt to check a firearm on flights originating from airports in anti-gun locales where mere possession of a firearm is illegal. I refer specifically to NYC and New Jersey airports. Further, it is generally ill-advised to have layovers in such locations. In the event that your connecting flight is missed or delayed, it would technically be illegal for you to claim your baggage (and therefore your gun) and then attempt to recheck the bag the next day. If you ever find yourself in this situation where you must take possession of your luggage in a hostile anti-gun jurisdiction, my advice is to claim your bag, go to the nearest car rental counter, and make your way to friendly territory quickly and discreetly by car. The legal ramifications of trying to recheck a bag with a gun in it in such locations are not worth the potential consequences. Far better to avoid felony charges by incurring the cost and time of a car rental.
This is a good point to segue into traveling with firearms in your car. During interstate travel, you are legally protected by the safe passage provision of the federal Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986 (FOPA). Basically, this means that you are allowed to travel through areas where firearms are prohibited as long as you are legally allowed to possess the firearm both at your origin and at your destination. Brief stops for food and fuel are allowed, but overnight stops are not. Your firearms must be secured unloaded and inaccessible in a separate compartment of the vehicle or in a locked container and any ammunition must also be stored separately. Do not count on local law enforcement in anti-gun jurisdictions being aware of the provisions of FOPA. (Ironically, the New Jersey State Police have a webpage dedicated to this very subject. If you have the misfortune of driving through NJ, I would print it out and carry it with you…) If you are ever stopped for a traffic violation, be polite, but do not consent to a search of your vehicle. Make sure any passengers have been briefed to act and respond appropriately!
Generally, I will travel by car with the same cases and locks that I use for air travel. If I’m carrying large amounts of ammunition for a training class, I will use locking ammo boxes to separate and secure the ammo. I try to plan for fuel and convenience stops so that I don’t ever stop my vehicle in anti-gun jurisdictions, I just discreetly pass through while obeying all relevant traffic laws.
One good resource to consult prior to travel is www.handgunlaw.us, especially if you have a concealed carry permit that may be honored in other states with reciprocity agreements. The NRA-ILA also has an excellent resource available here. By being familiar with the laws at your destination, as well as in any jurisdictions that you have to pass through, traveling with firearms is easy. I hope the above information and commentary assists you with your planning.