Here’s a bold statement.
When you fly the friendly skies, you’ll experience more invasion of privacy, groping and unwanted scrutiny when you walk through the TSA checkpoint than when you try to check guns in your baggage.
I fly enough that the majority of currently employed TSA agents are intimately familiar with every square inch of my body. But groping aside, I’ve found checking guns by following the rules to be a simple and straightforward process – as long as you carefully follow the rules.
Be aware that there are always two sets of rules: those set by the TSA and those set by your airline. In a perfect world, they will be consistent with each other, but be aware, that doesn’t always happen.
Let’s review a checklist for hassle-free flying with guns.
1. Buy or borrow a lockable hard case.
Per the regulations, it can be a case with integrated combinations locks, but I prefer a case with multiple holes for heavy duty padlocks of my choosing. Do NOT use TSA locks on your gun case. This is a misunderstood area of the law and, technically speaking, it’s illegal for you to do so. Per the letter of the law, as discussed in the footnotes of this article, you alone must maintain possession of the keys or combination to open your gun case. You cannot lock it in such a way that others have access. By using TSA locks on your gun case, lots of people, just about anyone in fact, technically has access to your guns. TSA locks are NOT secure and not even TSA agents are supposed to have access to your case, once cleared, without you being present to unlock the case.
One more thing about cases. If you travel with a pistol, you might want to get a larger than necessary case, like this one. You can legally place other items besides your gun in the case, like cameras or computer equipment.
2. Check your airline’s website to review their policies.
While most are essentially the same, they don’t have to be. Print out the policy page to bring with you. With all that ticketing agents need to know, not every agent will have a complete understanding of their airline’s gun policy.
3. Review the TSA policy website for the latest information.
It can, and does, change. That’s your tax dollars at work folks. Print this out also, as different TSA agents have different understandings of their own policy. Really.
4. Unload your gun and magazine.
Complete this step while still at home! Check the chamber to make sure that’s empty. I like to pack my guns in the case with cylinder or action locked open so it’s very apparent the gun is in a safe condition. That’s not required, just good manners.
5. Weigh your gun case and ammunition.
Most airlines will allow up to 11 pounds of ammunition. And, like any luggage, you will be charged more for any baggage weighing more than 50 pounds. This sounds like a lot, but when traveling to the Crimson Trace Midnight 3 Gun competition last year, my case with shotgun, rifle, pistol and ammunition tipped the scale past the 50 pound mark.
6. You can pack ammo in the same locking case.
This is another area that’s misunderstood and full of internet myth. Your ammo just needs to be stored in some type of safe container and not loose. Technically, you can keep ammunition in magazines, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It meets the letter of the law storage requirement, but too many airline and TSA agents will give you grief. Use a plastic ammo box or original cardboard packaging and you’ll be fine carrying that in the same lockable case as your gun.
7. Carry your gun case in the closed and locked condition into the airport until you meet the ticketing agent.
You can’t do curbside check in, so be prepared to go inside to your airline counter. When checking in, calmly tell the ticketing agent that you have a firearm to declare. It helps if you don’t yell something like “I’VE GOT A GUN!!!” Unless you live in one of the Republik states, the agent won’t even bat an eye. They deal with this all the time. The agent will tell you what do to and when. Some airports call TSA straight to the counter. Others have an airline agent escort you to a TSA checkpoint with your luggage. Just do what they say and you’ll be fine. At some point, they will have you fill out an orange declaration card and place it in your gun case.
8. Hang out and chill for a bit.
Don’t rush from the ticket counter to the gate. Once your gun case leaves your possession, there is still a chance TSA will need you to re-open the case. Most airports will tell you to wait for a bit in case they page you. The subtle message here is to always be sure to arrive at the airport plenty early if you plan to check a firearm. Time is your friend and the whole process will be a lot less stressful.
9. Make sure you bring the padlock keys in your carry on luggage.
I left mine in the car once and dropped them in my checked baggage another time. Fortunately, I figured out my error in time to correct it, else TSA would have been more than happy to cut my locks off.
10. Be prepared for surprises.
Yes, TSA might clear your gun case upon your departure. Yes, some other TSA agent may cut your locks off somewhere between your departure gate and your final destination. They’re not supposed to without a really good reason, but it happens. Again, that’s your tax dollars at work. You can yell, scream and stomp your feet, but you won’t win that battle. Accept the cost of new locks as part of doing business. On the other hand, if your guns are missing, I personally would tell the airline and destination TSA agents that I was calling the FBI immediately to report an interstate theft of firearms. That ought to get you some attention.
I’ve flown many, many times with one or more firearms and have never had a serious issue. Yes, some airports act differently, but I’ve never lost a gun or had a serious run in with the G-men.
The key is preparation and attention to detail. If you do everything right, your trip will be uneventful for both your and your guns.
Some extra footnotes
Here are a few things to be aware of that you may or may not encounter.
First, some airports, like Bend, Oregon, violate federal law. That’s a harsh statement, but it’s true, or was, the last time I traveled through there with guns. The TSA folks asked for my keys so they could inspect my gun cases in a back room, secure, TSA area. I was not allowed to accompany them. According to the Code of Federal Regulations:
Basically, I, the owner, MUST not surrender my keys or combination to anyone. From a practical perspective, good luck with that. When fighting with the federal government over obscure details like this, you will not win in the short term. You may win in the long term, but odds are you won’t make your flight at the scheduled time. So choose your battles carefully. You can be right all day long and still not make it past the TSA checkpoint.
If you’re traveling with optics that you don’t trust to the baggage handlers, you can take those as carry on baggage. Obviously you have to remove it from your gun first! But it’s no problem carryon a scope onto the plane as long as there is no gun attached.
Avoid connecting through New York. Yes, this is another harsh statement, but too many folks have spent too many nights in jail and spent too many tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees not to mention it. If you are legally allowed to have a gun from your departure point, and legally allowed to have it at your destination, under federal law, you are supposed to be able to travel from point A to point B without interference. Unfortunately, some places, like New York, realize that they have more lawyers than you can afford, and choose to harass law abiding travelers anyway, knowing full well there’s not much you can do about it. Most times, if you have a connecting flight through New York, you’ll be fine. Your checked gun case will get moved on to the next flight and all will be well. The gotcha occurs when the travel gremlins arrive. If your flight is canceled or delayed, and you have to spend the night, now you are taking a gun from the airport baggage claim to the hotel then back to the airport again. And given ridiculous laws like the new SAFE Act, your gun is most likely illegal in New York. You may meet Officer Friendly when arriving at the airport the next morning. Welcome to the pokey and I hope you get along with your cell mate. I won’t schedule an itinerary through there for exactly this reason. It sounds far-fetched, yes, but tell that to the folks who have been arrested and harassed. Unfortunately, it happens.