One of the easiest things to do — provided you abide by all regulations and airline policy — is to legally fly with a gun inside the country. The only trick is knowing and obeying the rules.
Play by the Rules
The Transportation Security Administration enforces the rules and provides guidelines for airline travel with a firearm. Like it or not, if you violate the rules or disobey the guidelines and there could be consequences.
The agency can assess civil penalties of up to $13,000 for a weapons violation with the typical first offense for carrying a handgun into a checkpoint usually being $3,900 smackers. Also, some airport authorities can refer the matter over for criminal prosecution, which could lead to jail time and the loss of firearm rights.
With that, the first rule of traveling with firearms is to forget about carrying your firearm on you or in your carry-on to keep from getting the rough treatment at a security checkpoint. Instead, declare it to ticketing agents at your airline’s ticket counter.
Flying with a checked bag is the only way you are getting a legal gun on the plane. This is something you must prepare for before arriving at the airport.
Getting ready to fly
Across TSA and airline regs, all require that the firearm traveling should be locked in a “hard-sided container.” For several years, I have used a variety of Pelican cases with my current favorite for single handgun flying being the 1170 Protector series.
Billed as crushproof (stainless steel hardware, solid wall construction), watertight (it has an O-ring seal) and backed by a lifetime warranty, the case is about the size of a small municipal phonebook (8x11x3-inches) but still big enough for what I need. Plus, it has two ports for padlocks. They retail for $50 but you can get them way less than that if you shop around.
The 1170 has enough room for a compact-to-full-size handgun, two mags, a box of ammunition, holster, and knife.
Likewise, when flying with guns, a snub revolver with wadcutters makes sense sometimes if you get diverted. If you are flying to say, Pennsylvania and have a Glock 19 with 15 round mags loaded with hollow points and get diverted due to a blizzard to nearby New Jersey where just possessing that setup is a felony — you get what I am saying. With that being said, always check the legality of firearms carry and possession for your destination.
Guns have to be totally unloaded. That means an empty cylinder in revolvers or chamber for pistols. While some argue magazines can be loaded, interpretations by security screeners may vary and you’re on the airline’s time. I have had to download mags at the airport, which gets lots of wide-eyed stares. For me, it’s easier to show up with empty mags and skip the mystery or argument. Then, I also lock the slide back on an empty chamber for added measure.
Ammunition can’t be loose in the case. It must be either in a manufacturer’s box or in “fiber, wood or metal boxes or other packaging specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition.” I typically just fly with a full box of whatever load I normally carry.
I’ve also flown with those cheap ($3) flip-top plastic ammo boxes typically used by reloaders. Alternatively, you can always buy ammo at your destination, but be aware that some states have local regulations that require you to live in or have a state-issued firearm card to do so. Also, be aware that the TSA gets heartburn if you fly with a lot of bulk ammo due to Haz-Mat regs, so check ahead if that is in your plan and explore the possibility of shipping it ahead of your flight. Most airlines limit this to 11-pounds.
When it comes to locks, on my personal Pelican I currently use a pair of readily available Master Lock 141D padlocks. They are four-pin locks with a 21mm hardened steel shackle that is just long enough to fit the case while not allowing the case to open more than a fraction of an inch if the latches are thrown.
This is very important as TSA will refuse to let your gun proceed if they can open the case and see any part of the gun — I’ve had it happen. This is a very basic padlock that only costs about $10 and will defeat “honest thieves” while satisfying the screeners.
On the downside, such basic locks are vulnerable to anyone with a pair of good bolt cutters or reasonable skill in “raking” a lock or access to a comb pick. Sure, you can buy $80 10-disc Abloy Enforcers, but even those can still be picked and, let’s be honest, you would likely still use them on a plastic box that anyone can gain entry to by either punching out the hinge pins or just taking a Dremel to the hinges themselves, so don’t get too bogged down in the lock concept.
Speaking of locks, I always travel with a spare pair of 141Ds in my suitcase while the keys are either on my person or in my carry on. The reason being for this is that I have had TSA cut my locks so they could open my case to further verify my gun was unloaded (see= fly with unloaded mags in the above paragraphs) thus leaving me unable to catch my flight because then I did not have the ability to relock my case. Some airports (looking at you Orlando) are notorious for doing this.
When it comes to locks and TSA, I label my Pelican with both my cell number and mailing address and kind of hang back for a few minutes after I drop the checked luggage off at the counter before moving to the gate to make sure there isn’t an issue.
With your pistol packed, put it in your suitcase, typically in a place easily accessible when you get to the counter without having to drag your underwear out in front of everyone to retrieve it. Do not use TSA-approved locks on your gun case. The TSA should not have ready access to the case. A TSA-approved lock on your luggage itself is fine, just not on the gun case.
At the counter
First off, be cool and act natural. When you enter the airport, proceed directly to the counter with your luggage and get in line. When you are greeted by the airline counter guy/gal simply tell them you are flying with a firearm (A) not in your carry-on but rather in the luggage you are checking and it is (B) unloaded and in a hard-sided locked container.
They are going to want to see the case at a minimum. Sometimes, they will ask you to open the case itself so they can visually inspect that the gun is unloaded. Occasionally, they will be unsure of themselves and their procedures and call a red coat (the term in this case for an airline counter supervisor, not one of King George’s foot soldiers) for back up. After asking you at least one more time if the gun is unloaded and in a hard-sided locked container, the airline rep(s) will fill out a yellow or orange firearms declaration form that they give you to sign vouching for the fact that, at least in your opinion, the gun is unloaded and in a hard-sided locked container.
From there, the luggage gets zipped up and checked for weight (here is where that 4.5-pounds of the gun case gets figured into the rest of your clothes and flying kit to meet the airline’s own weight limit) and set aside for TSA. Be sure you have your luggage ticket so you can track it later. When heading to the gate, you shouldn’t have anything associated with the handgun on your on in your carry on. The mags, ammo, holster, muzzle accessories, etc. should be in the bag you just checked. Also, replicas or training guns, even hard plastic “blue guns” should be in the checked luggage. About the only thing you can get through a security checkpoint with that is gun related is optics and documentation.
Getting your bag
Once you arrive at your final destination, find out what luggage carousel your flight is using and head directly there. Ideally, I like to be there when the first bag spits out so I can put my own eyeballs on it and make sure it is not mine. Why? The thing that burns me up the most about flying with a gun is that the airline always says that you will have to come to the luggage counter to sign for or otherwise show ID for your checked bag. However, about half the time I fly, my bag containing the checked firearm spits out on the carousel with everyone else’s stuff and I calmly retrieve it, go to a semi-secluded area, unlock my luggage, and unzip it enough to peek inside to make sure my gun container is still inside and seems to have not been tampered with.
If the bag doesn’t spit out, then otherwise proceed to the luggage counter for your airline, which should be somewhere near the carousel, and pick it up where it was supposed to be all along.
As someone who has flown probably about 100x over the past two decades, both pre and post-9/11, I can say that I usually have no issues with (eventually) getting my luggage happy and safe on the other side of the flight. A couple of SHOT Shows ago I showed up in Las Vegas without the bag I checked earlier that day and it took three days (!) to find but it still had the locked handgun container inside. As you can see, it is never a good idea to fly with anything that you can’t replace, so choose your out-of-town carry gun wisely and don’t pack something that is going to break your heart to never see again.
In the end, don’t give up on the concept of traveling with a gun just because there are a lot of hoops to jump through. The more people that do it and do it correctly will help clear the way for those that are on the fence and make the “learning curve” for airport screeners and counter people quicker to smooth out. It is fortune cookie simple: fly with a firearm (A), not in your carry-on but instead in your checked luggage while (B) making sure it is unloaded and in a hard-sided locked container.
For more information on traveling with firearms, be sure to check the TSA’s website and with the airline you intend to travel with.