Packing & the Friendly Skies-What You Need to Know About Flying With Firearms

Packing & the Friendly Skies-What You Need to Know About Flying With Firearms

In 2002, privacy activist John Gilmore gained national press attention when he attempted to fly to Washington, DC without showing identification in the airport. It didn’t go well. He was prevented from boarding his aircraft, denied passage to our nation’s capital, and ultimately prevented from having a meeting with one of his Congressional representatives. Thus, in one instance, this successful businessman and noted critic of bureaucratic interference was denied the full extent of protections afforded to him under the 1st and 4th Amendments to our Constitution.

In 2007, I began attempting to fly to various destinations while in possession of firearms. I have faired rather better than Mr. Gilmore in terms of my encounters with government functionaries and am pleased to say that while many of our freedoms have suffered unconscionable assaults in recent history, the right to keep and bear arms has proven rather resilient… even when exercised in an environment that most people incorrectly consider to be the pinnacle of a "gun free" zone.

The plain fact is, in the United States of America we have the right not only to possess firearms but also the right to travel with them to any destination we see fit. The Firearm Owner’s Protection Act of 1986 contains the Safe Passage provision, which explicitly elucidates that citizens have the right to journey state to state with firearms as long as they are locked and unloaded. This freedom of travel is unquestionable… even in instances where a party may cross borders and pass through jurisdictions with varied rules and regulations. As many of us who live along or near the Eastern seaboard know, we can drive through a state like New York with firearms even if they are not legal in the state of New York… the jumble of incongruous and sometimes draconian local laws is not a concern for the people who are merely passing by.

Air travel is accorded the same treatment under Federal Law, with the national carriers being treated more or less like interstate highways. No matter where the on-ramps and off-ramps are located, as long as gun owners have their steel locked and unloaded, nothing is off-limits. There are some tips and pointers, however, of which one should be aware in order to make the process and painless and straightforward as possible.

Federal Standards

The Federal Government, primarily in the form of the Transportation Security Administration, sets forth a series of guidelines and policies concerning how passengers my fly with firearms. For the most part, these standards are rather loose. The government leaves it up to the airlines to specify any additional considerations that they see fit. That can sometimes be an issue (that is a topic which we will cover shortly) and while I’m never a champion of government interference with private entities, I wouldn’t be averse to one single "armed passenger’s rights" standard imposed across all airlines. As common carriers, they are subject to some regulation. Keeping all parties in line with the bare minimum of rules as specified by the TSA would be a fine thing, in this author’s opinion.

According to federal policy, passengers may travel with firearms as long as they are unloaded and packed in a fully hard-sided case that is locked and cannot be accessed by anyone except the passenger who is checking said bag. Federal law also allows for eleven pounds of ammunition. The TSA policies do not say much about how your ordinance is to be packed, save for a prohibition of any "exposure" of the rounds. Ammunition is a key sticking point with many of the airlines, however, and we will cover this shortly.

What to Expect at the Airport

The actual procedure is surprisingly painless and uncomplicated, at least on paper. Passengers whose luggage contains firearms show up at the airport like any other traveler. They proceed to the check-in counter for their airline and have their bags weighed and processed in the routine manner. However, the luggage is not immediately taken back to the bowels of the airport.

During check-in, you inform the airline that you are traveling with firearms. This should, naturally, be done sometime at the onset of the affair… before someone signals a bag-thrower to toss your luggage on a conveyor belt to be whisked away. When you alert your check-in agent that you are traveling with firearms there is a bit of paperwork to handle. A "declaration form" (typically, just an index card with a carbon copy sheet affixed to the back side) is filled out with minor details, such as the date and flight number. The passenger signs this form and it is placed inside of the luggage bearing firearms. The legal text on this paper simply indicates that you have alerted the airline to the presence of firearms and assure that they are unloaded.

Please note, while some of these declaration forms have the appearance of a baggage tag (occasionally they even bear loops of string) they are NOT to be affixed to the outside of one’s luggage EVER. This is a violation of Federal Law, not to mention a terribly stupid invitation for theft or baggage tampering. These forms belong INSIDE your luggage… preferably on the very top where TSA officers or others would immediately see them, indicating the presence of a firearm, no matter how deeply it may be packed amid folded shirts and sundry supplies.

On occasion, you will be asked to demonstrate your firearm’s safe status. I have more than once had the pleasure of dropping magazines, racking slides, or breaking open the action on a piece of steel in front of many other passengers. The pleasure I derive from this is not visceral, and has little to do with bringing about a small, horrified look of shock on any hoplophobes nearby (something that hardly ever happens, I’m pleased to say) but comes from a deeper sense of citizenship and civic duty that I shall discuss later.

Where the process diverts somewhat from routine practice is the next step. While most travelers would bid farewell to their bags at this point, you instead proceed to a TSA screening area. These are typically nearby… you may have seen them as you stroll through airport check-in halls. Often these roped-off areas are seen processing "special" baggage like oversized sports equipment, pet carriers, and the like. However, while those bags typically sit idle until a TSA officer is prepared to act on them, your luggage will receive immediate treatment.

Because of the fact that firearm-bearing bags may not travel through the airport system unlocked, you stand by while the TSA performs some cursory tests on your luggage. In my experience, they typically just run things through a Rapiscan x-ray machine or perform an explosive residue swab test and if nothing alerts you’re on your way. If there is a need for additional inspection, you are asked to unlock the luggage and stand by while a brief hand-scan takes place. I should note that in my experience, the TSA officers are much more respectful of someone’s belongings when that passenger is standing right next to them, observing their actions.

When everything is all clear, you are asked to ensure that your luggage is locked properly and it is sent on its way through the airport and ultimately to your final destination. No matter how many layovers, plane changes, and other interruptions your journey involves… the bags remain locked and no one is allowed to open them until they make their way to your hands at the final baggage claim. This is because of the fact that "TSA compliant" locks are not to be used. Proper, heavy-duty padlocks are what one should employ in this situation. Naturally, I have some models that I’m happy to recommend.

It is important to understand just how vulnerable your typical "hardware store" padlocks are and how unsuited they are for this task. Picking attacks, bump keying, shimming, and other methods of entry are easy to do and, contrary to your typical street criminal attempting home invasion, the people stealing from luggage are skilled enough to attempt some of these tactics. Beyond this, the "TSA compliant" locks are all master-keyed. In addition to being very weak and susceptible to most common picking attacks, the master keys for these locks are poorly controlled and copies exist in great number. I would never trust my firearms with anything other than a "high security" padlock obtained from a locksmith or online dealer.

Personally, I always secure my belongings with Abloy Protec locks. This style of rotating-disk mechanism is not only the closest I come to using the word "unpickable" but they are of significantly robust construction and operate smoothly under the most punishing conditions. While heavy-duty models are available (and I sometimes will use these on certain baggage) the Abloy 321 padlock, commonly known as their "executive" model offers the same level of pick protection in a small, economic package. The splendid web site offers them for a mere $25 each.

Full disclosure – while I have no direct professional affiliation with Mitch, the individual who runs this business, he is a friend and we have an established relationship of past commerce. He imports many of his items from Dutch locksmiths, some of whom are also acquainted with me through the physical security consulting world. I am happy to see Mitch gain exposure and business, but I receive no financial reward from your patronage of his site or my mention of it in this piece. If you can find better prices elsewhere, please feel free to seek them. Heh, but I’ll tell you right now… you can’t.

An interesting fact of which many people are not aware pertains to what constitutes a "firearm" that must be declared to the airlines and locked. It is not just lethal guns used for self-defense that fall under the purview of these regulations. Any device which expels a projectile by means of a combustible propellant is a "firearm" in the eyes of the Fed. As you may know, attempting to rob a bank with a flare gun or recklessly discharging blanks from a starter pistol in public can get you slapped with a gun charge just as if you were brandishing a lethal weapon. The same holds true for air travel… flare guns, blank guns, and even various related items are all considered to be "firearms" under the law. All such hardware is to be declared and locked properly.

While I have not personally flown with bare, stripped receivers or NFA-tracked items like suppressors, other individuals have. It might not be understood by airline staff initially, but these items require the same treatment. As many persons who shop on are aware, anything that requires an FFL to transfer between states is a "firearm" subject to all relevant policies. While historical arms buffs may be aware that black power items manufactured before the turn of the century are not legally "firearms" I would not expect airport staff or TSA officers to understand this distinction. If flying with a Springfield Model 1842 or a Brown Bess, for the sake of easy travel and to protect such fine pieces of history, follow these procedures, declare them as firearms, and lock your luggage fully.

Some of you may have realized from the above text, that it is quite possible to leverage these "nonstandard" firearms as a means to allow locking of your luggage even if your ultimate destination is in a region of the country unfriendly towards firearms. Flare guns are legal in all fifty states with no paperwork and even high-quality models are available as cheaply as $50. Google for the German Geco Flare pistol to find listings from Sportsman’s Guide and similar outfits.

Problems That Sometimes Arise

I wish I could say that this is how things work one hundred percent of the time, and that it has been nothing but smooth sailing through calm seas when people have flown with firearms. Sadly, there are a number of hiccups that can arise. For the most part, however, they are easy to handle.

Uninformed Staff

Airline staff (and to a much lesser degree, TSA staffers) are sometimes unfamiliar with the rules surrounding transportation of firearms. The most common difficulties concern attempts to mark the outside of luggage (either by affixing the declaration tag or by writing on one’s computer-printed luggage tag) or restrictions on how locks should be applied to luggage. Such matters can be corrected by standing one’s ground and politely requesting a supervisor. Having a copy of the pertinent rules and showing them often helps. I have made a two-sided sheet summarizing these rules available on my web site. Some travelers I know find it comforting to keep a copy (sometimes laminated) with them when flying.

It is almost self-evident where such uninformed staff are likely to be encountered. Rural parts of the country have a rich firearms heritage. Small airports in these regions are almost never a problem. Employees in major urban centers where gun laws are strict and individuals servicing flights to foreign destinations with repressive laws are less likely to have encountered armed citizens in the past.

Airline Policies

Here is a matter of significant concern for me and a cause of many needless headaches for countless armed travelers. A number of carriers impose regulations and restrictions that go well beyond the Federal standard, and violation of their rules can lead to large financial penalties or denial of baggage outright. Most often, issues surrounding the number of firearms being transported or the inclusion of ammunition are what cause difficulty. As a helpful guide to sorting the dizzying array of red tape, I have prepared a write-up on my web site that shows each specific way that all airlines deviate from the basic TSA standard. How their policies can affect you is outlined, and (to simplify matters further) a basic "letter grade" is assigned to each carrier as a reflection of how their rules are written and how they treat the firearm issues in public statements.

The carriers with sensible and accommodating policies include US Airways, SouthWest, and Continental’s stateside service. Among the worst airlines are AirTran and especially Jet Blue and NorthWest Airlines. The extent of these last two carriers’ dislike of firearms is hard to imagine. You can read full accounts of their public statements and an analysis of their awful policies in the "Airline Report Cards" section of my web site.

Distant Screening Areas

In most airports, the "secondary screening area" (where TSA officers will give your luggage a once-over before you leave it in their care) is relatively close to your check-in desk. To the end of a row of counters or sometimes across the arrival hall just behind where you are standing is typically the farthest you have to walk. If you’ve shelled out three dollars for a Smart Carte or employed a skycap for assistance, it’s best to keep them around just in case a longer journey is necessary.

On occasion (particularly in the international wing of airports) there simply is no secondary area. Bags are taken (locked) right at check-in, and you will be paged if something alerts and you need to open things up. (This can lead to awkward requests by TSA officers asking you to surrender your key or combination to them so they can take it to a secure area where your bag is waiting. This is NOT legal. Do not part with your key, as it should remain in your possession at all times. Escalate matters to a supervisor if necessary.)

Methods of Locking Bags

Here is where the greatest confusion presents itself concerning flying with firearms. Depending on who you talk to, what web sites you consult, and how a particular individual has been trained one can encounter a litany of advice. The following is the best that I can offer given both my research as well as my experience.

If you are traveling with handguns, there is nothing particularly wrong with using a small gun case. PLEASE NOTE, however, that while it may be legal to place a small, locked gun case into a larger, unlocked luggage item… this is NOT recommended. Every instance of theft of a firearm from baggage of which I am aware has taken place in specifically this type of scenario. Even if you have a small pistol case, I beseech you to place it in a large hard-sided case and place your lock on that case.

I should mention… even if your smaller pistol case is able to be locked, do not secure it. It is not unheard of for airport staff or TSA officers to tell travelers that a locked inner case precludes the need to lock one’s outer case. I go a step farther and make certain that my locks cannot even fit on my inner pistol cases. Never give a bureaucrat an opportunity to request that you leave your outer bag unlocked. (That means no soft-sided luggage… not even partial hard-sided bags are acceptable.)

Local Law Enforcement

On very rare occasions, police officers at airports (particularly highly specialized units like port authority police or airport-specific departments) are unfamiliar with the "Safe Passage" rights of travelers under the FOPA. While this is highly atypical, a handful of passengers have been detained if firearms in their possession are prohibited by local law. Google the Gregg Revell case of 2005 for more information about the worst such incident on record. Again, this is by no means the norm, but you would be well-served by familiarizing yourself with those facts and having the contact information of a good lawyer.

(It is beyond the scope of this article, but in this age one would almost consider knowing an experienced firearms lawyer to be part of responsible gun ownership. The defensive use of a firearm, even when fully-justified, will all but guarantee you a long line of legal issues. For the sake of your family, your property, and your well-being… be prepared for any eventuality.)

No matter what happens, remember… you are following the law and you have a right to travel with your firearms. While the bulk of my travels have been blissfully incident-free, once in a while I will notice an aghast expression or quiet aside comment from nearby travelers. In my mind, this is both a good thing and a bad thing.

Molōn Labe

I am proud of the firearms that I own. I am proud of my right to travel with them. I am proud to be seen with them in public. I like the fact that other citizens can see one of their ranks casually waiting in a line or proceeding to a destination while clearly armed. Now, I will admit that part of this involves the acute thrill of knowing that one or two anti-gun types are quietly wringing their hands… confronted with the plain reality of a freedom that they do not understand or support. But there is something more, something much more.

Most of all, I enjoy traveling with firearms not because of the occasional chagrined emotion it stirs up in the small-minded, but because of the lack of emotion it so often elicits from those around me. The way I see it, this is a very healthy aspect of a free society. Witnessing people simply going about their lives while in possession of firearms is a good thing, in my view.

There is a very powerful image (left) that stuck with me from the first time it scrolled across my screen. It is a photograph taken in a grocery store in Switzerland. Looking down an aisle lined with canned goods and produce, one sees a young man strolling away from the camera. He is in the service (as are all able-bodied Swiss males aged between 19 and 31) and returning home from a day of drills and exercises.

Slung across his back is his Sig 550 assault rifle. And around him, amid the handful of citizens pushing shopping carts and squeezing loaves of bread and reaching for jars of peas, all is normal.

To me, that is the true sign of a society with healthy attitudes toward gun possession. And that is what we contribute to every time we announce to co-workers that we’re going to the range after five o’clock… every time our concealed carry piece peeks out from under a shirt when we place a library book back on a high shelf… every time a family of four headed to Disney World sees us with an M-14 or a 1911 laying in an open Pelican Case at the airport check-in desk. Normalizing gun ownership is something I take pride in, and I will continue to do so… until I can stroll into the local WaWa for a hot dog with a rifle slung over my shoulder and no one around me raises an eyebrow.
by Deviant Ollum

1 Comment

8 years 38 weeks ago, 8:38 AM


Send_it_Boi's picture

Join Date:
May 2009
Dallas, Texas

thank you for posting this. most law abiding gun owners are aware of travel regulations, but this simplifies the process. having a laminated copy of the guidelines is a really kewl idea. i personally appreciate seeing information like this, and hope to see more posts like this in the near future. while most covers a lot, i'm sure there are responsible gun owners out there who do not fly on a regular basis and a piece like this is practical, helpful and useful. thank you very much.

Send it!

Never point a weapon at anyone you don't intend to kill.
samD's picture
Posted by: samD
8 years 38 weeks ago

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