It’s that time of the year when millions of people subject themselves to the domestic feel-good airline security theater and the gauntlet known as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Inevitably, a certain percentage of travelers will decide to bring their firearm with them, although some will do it unintentionally or illegally as over 3,391 firearms in checked bags were caught by TSA in 2016. So, it behooves you to avoid these pitfalls and understand the rules and regulations governing the TSA and various airlines. SOFREP has touched on this topic before, but I want to share a couple of points and experiences that will make the trip hopefully uneventful.
Know and comply with the rules governing firearms at your final destination. Even the ones at any layovers. This should be obvious, but make sure that scary looking black rifle or conceal carry license/permit is accepted at the state and localities you wish to travel to. If you end up on a layover that requires you to spend the night due to unforeseen circumstances, make sure you check the firearm laws there before claiming your luggage for the night. If possible, I always try to fly direct and avoid losing luggage at any layovers. Specific National Firearm Act (NFA) items, such as short-barreled rifles/shotguns, suppressors/mufflers/silencers, or fully automatic firearms may also face additional restrictions.
Always check for updated TSA and applicable airline rules and regulations. These rarely change, but you never know. And prior to boarding a flight is not the time to learn them. Every airline allows firearms and ammunition in their checked baggage, but different transport and weight limitations may apply. Rules are universal, but the interpretation isn’t, so don’t be surprised if the airline employee or TSA agent are unsure about the rules themselves. Most airlines don’t require their employees to look at the firearm themselves, (most wouldn’t know what to look for anyway) but I’ve seen this happen before. More than not, I have printed out the TSA and airline company rules and brought it with me to the airport to clarify and head off any potential problems. Even a simple thing like storing ammo will differ from airline to airline. Some will allow ammunition kept in the magazine (separate from the firearm) while others will frown on that if they catch it. Therefore, I recommend empty magazines/clips and leaving the ammunition in the boxed case it came in. Or get yourself a plastic case that holds the rounds individually. This goes for rifle, handgun, or shotgun ammunition. Keeping everything tidy goes a long way to avoiding hassles.
Not all airports are equal. I’ve traveled through my fair share of different airports with my declared firearms, but I find the experiences inconsistent at times. All airports operate in compliance with TSA regulations, but how they handle it will be different. Some airports will check and swab your luggage for explosive residue in front of you. Others will do it behind the secured area and ask you to wait nearby until they say you are good to go. I don’t like the latter, but you generally have no choice on how the airport dictates that. The Phoenix airport, for example, is consistent and always checks the firearm case in front of me in an area off to the side. Philadelphia seems to go one way or the other, based on what airline you are using or what level of construction the airport is under. Dallas-Fort Worth doesn’t have room in the ticketing area to do inspections and will always do it behind closed doors until they give you the go ahead.
Every time you check in your firearm, you will have to sign a small declaration form, date it, and slip it in with your firearm. If you are checking in the case itself, then it will go into the case with the firearm. But what about a case you are placing inside another piece of luggage? I’ve been told different things: I’ve been told to place it into the case, and I’ve been told to place it into the luggage. I usually end up taping it to the outside of the hard case, face up so that it will be easily picked up by security x-rays.
Where your luggage ends up may also differ. Your luggage with a firearm usually goes straight to the respective airline office for pickup instead of the conveyor belt. That way, it is considered “secured” and you must show your ID to pick it up. Or I’ve had an airline employee come out into the luggage area and directly hand the case to me after confirming my identification. This will generally happen with larger stand-alone rifle/shotgun cases. Sometimes the airline employee will put a bright “special handling” tag on the luggage containing the firearm, which usually means it’s supposed to go straight to the office. This didn’t happen one time and I just happened to be going past the conveyor belt when I spotted it coming out. Like a sick, wounded African buffalo among a herd of normal, healthy buffalos, it can elicit unhealthy attention. This is an airline procedure; the TSA do not externally mark luggage with firearms (that I am aware of).
Don’t go cheap. The TSA doesn’t specify the make, model, or type of case, only that it needs to be “a hard-sided container that completely secures the firearm and locked with a combination or key that only the passenger retains.” I recommend a Pelican or a pelican-like case to transport your firearm in. I bought a hard case for pistols and handguns on clearance (but not “cheap”) at a gun show and it works fine for my purpose. But if you purchase a case for the sole purpose of transporting long rifles and shotguns, I would strongly recommend you spend some serious dough. I bought a knock-off pelican rifle case for about 90 dollars. After about 3 trips, the wheels broke, one of the hinge pins slid out, and it’s beat all to hell. The same goes for locks. Don’t use combination padlocks, I find those tend to be less reliable than regular key locks. A standard lock with a key will be better than the TSA approved lock since those can be easily opened with a universal TSA key. If you place the case within another piece of luggage, the case can be a non-TSA approved lock while the outer baggage is secured with the TSA approved lock. Make sure you keep the key on you at all times, don’t place it with other checked baggage thus defeating the purpose of you having sole access to the case. These guidelines won’t deter all thefts, but it will keep most people honest and the others at least inconvenienced.
Get there early, but expect the unexpected. At the very least, add 30 minutes to your arrival. If everything goes well, you still have time “to stop at the duty-free shop.” But delays can strike, even after clearing security. One time when going through the Philadelphia Airport, I properly declared my firearm, went through all the usual declaration procedures and inspections before finally given the ok to proceed to my plane. I went through the TSA security gauntlet, (there was an extensive line of course) and proceeded to make my way to my gate. As soon as I reached it, the airline employee told me I was needed back in the ticketing area. On the other side of the airport. Getting back to the ticket counter, I saw one of Philly’s finest waiting for me. He said the TSA found a firearm in my luggage (no shit), but claimed I didn’t declare it. Except I did, but I had to prove them that by opening the case to show the declaration form. One of the airline ticket agents that recognized me validated my claims, but it fell on deaf ears. For some reason, they couldn’t find my luggage right away, even though they pulled it to the side and called me down. During this long lull, Philly’s finest starts to take down my information after asking for my ID, probably intent on giving me a taxpayer-funded trip downtown. Finally, another TSA agent appeared and said he found my luggage and declaration form after opening the case with my key. He explained to me the tag didn’t seem to show up in the x-ray, and the other TSA agent that inspected my luggage had ended his shift and didn’t inform anyone else about it. Which didn’t make sense to me, why the TSA is passing this information on to one another in person. But whatever, I was in a hurry to go through security again, and back to my plane that was probably already leaving. Fortunately for me, there was a mechanical problem and the plane was delayed by more than an hour. Unfortunately for me, my luggage didn’t make the flight, which I didn’t realize until after reaching my destination. It was placed on the flight after me, and I had to wait for another two hours to claim it.
It’s not just for firearms. Keep in mind that other types of weapons or less-than-lethal defense weapons need to be checked in, which includes knives, pepper spray, and tasers. Be mindful to declare replicas, airsoft models, bb guns, paintball guns, and deactivated firearms, x-rays aren’t going to be able to tell the difference. Almost every accessory and part of a firearm will also need to be checked in, but that [expensive] scope can be carried with you if you prefer.
Other options. Although you probably won’t run into any problems, maybe the prospect of dealing with this is deterring you from flying with your firearm. Are there any alternatives? Technically, if you fly private, you don’t face the same security restrictions as commercial flights. You just need to know and understand the rules your private charter may have in relation to having a firearm, including the rules of the destination airport. But whatever they are, it will still be far less stringent than flying commercial. Another option is sending your firearm from FFL dealer to FFL dealer. The downside is that you will need to know someone at your destination that can pick it up (and hopefully pass the required background check).
I also recommend knowing or having the firearm’s serial number on you in the unlikely chance it goes missing. That way, you can report it right away without having to get back to the authorities later. Take a picture of your firearm before traveling and delete them after you reach your destination. If you want to go the extra mile, you can attach a GPS tracking device to the case or firearm. There is a litany of different products out there, but most of them operate in a similar manner and work well enough for the average traveler.
Most important, stay attentive, stay smart, and stay safe during your travels.
Sources and Additional Information
- TSA: Transporting Firearms and Ammunition | https://www.tsa.gov/travel/transporting-firearms-and-ammunition
- ATF FAQ | https://www.atf.gov/resource-center/docs/0813-firearms-top-12-qaspdf/download
- Firearms on Aircraft | http://www.aerolegalservices.com/Articles/FirearmsOnAircraft.shtml
*Article title image compiled by author.