Written by: Greg Ellifritz
I travel quite a bit. Most of my adventures take place in third world countries where I can’t carry my gun. But whenever I travel anywhere in the United States, I bring a couple pistols, even when traveling by air.
As I was going through the airline firearms check procedures on my most recent trip, it struck me that many of my readers might not know that it is legal to carry guns in checked airplane baggage. Here’s what you have to do to be legal:
– Unload the guns
– Place the unloaded guns into a locked, hard sided case. The case must be completely sealed. If a TSA agent can manually pry open a corner of your case enough to slide a finger inside, you likely won’t be allowed to check the gun.
Also, a strict interpretation of the law seems to mandate that the lock on your gun case must NOT be TSA-accessible. In practice, I have not found that to be the case. The TSA itself has a different interpretation of the law on its website. They directly state: “You may use any brand or type of lock to secure your firearm case, including TSA-recognized locks.”
No one has ever even mentioned the fact that my gun case is secured with a TSA lock. In fact, it has sped up the check-in process a few times for me. With that said, it might be prudent to bookmark the above-linked website to show any potentially inept TSA agents you encounter.
-Place the hard-sided case into your locked (with TSA-approved lock) suitcase
-When you check your bag, inform the ticket agent that you would like to declare a firearm. Don’t say “I have a gun” or something equally stupid. Say something like, “I have an unloaded pistol in my checked bag that I need to declare.”
– The ticket agent will give you a little orange form to sign and may ask to inspect the gun to see that it is unloaded (depends on the individual airport and airline). If the ticket agent does ask you to show that the gun is unloaded, place your suitcase on the baggage scale and use your body to block the view of the gun from your fellow passengers in line.
– You place the orange form into your gun case and lock everything up. You theoretically are good to go, but in practice, you may have a few more hurdles to clear.
Every airport has a different procedure after the baggage declaration. Some don’t require anything more. In that case, the entire process adds less than five minutes to your check in time.
Other airports will require you to have your luggage inspected by the TSA before loading it onto the plane. Some will want you to wait in the ticket counter area for 10-15 minutes until the bags are inspected. Others require your presence during the inspection. There isn’t much consistency across the country or even between airlines.
With that said, after more than 25 years of flying with guns, I’ve never had any serious issues at all.
A couple of other things you might want to know….
– You are not allowed to check a firearm at the curbside luggage check in counter outside the airport.
– Ammunition is limited to 11 lbs and must be carried in a box or container that is designed to hold ammunition. Some people keep their magazines loaded and cover them with caps to qualify as a closed container. I just unload my mags and carry the ammo in a factory cartridge box. I keep the ammo box separate from the gun case, but TSA regulations say that it is OK to keep the gun and ammo together.
– If you carry pepper spray, it must be in a four-ounce or smaller container and placed in your checked bag. I usually carry mine inside a Ziploc bag because canisters can leak as a result of the plane’s varying air pressurization. For what it’s worth, I carry pepper spray in my checked bag on every trip I take. In scores of flights over the last 25 years, I’ve never had a canister explode or leak during a flight.
– Most airlines now deliver your luggage that contains guns to the baggage counter rather than placing it on the conveyor belt. You’ll have to show your ID to get the bag. Some airlines also zip tie the bags closed. I carry a small pair of trauma shears (blunt points) with the first aid supplies I have in my carry-on luggage. I use them to cut those zip ties off as soon as I take possession of the bag.
– Be cautious with your batteries for sights, lasers, and flashlights. Some security screeners freak out if you have loose lithium batteries in either checked bag or carry-on.
-Putting knives in your checked bag is allowed as well. There are no special declarations required when checking a bag containing a knife (or multiple knives).
– If you encounter any difficulties during the check-in process, calmly ask to speak to a supervisor. If the supervisor doesn’t remedy the issue, the person to contact is the airport’s “Ground Security Coordinator.” That person is in charge of all of the security for the entire airport. He has final say about issues involved in transporting your weapons.
When I travel stateside, I always carry two guns. Two guns in the same case (on top of each other) don’t take up any more room than a single pistol. I like knowing I have a spare gun in case one breaks or is somehow damaged by baggage handlers. It also gives me the ability to arm a competent travel companion for backup in a dangerous situation.
If you are traveling to a state that has reciprocity with your CCW, why not take your guns? Even if you don’t think you’ll need them at your destination, it doesn’t hurt to have them along. Imagine vacationing in Louisiana as Hurricane Katrina hit. Wouldn’t you like to have a gun if you were subjected to that chaos? What if you get stranded in your travels after another 9/11- style terror attack stops all airline travel for a few days? If you have to rent a car and drive across the country to get home, wouldn’t you want your pistol?
Some things are out of our control. It’s smart to be prepared, even if you are visiting an area where you don’t think you’ll “need” your gun.