Even in this post 9-11 world, you don’t have to leave your firearms at home when flying the friendly skies.
If you have never flown with firearms or haven’t flown in a while, this article will take you through the basics and offer a few tips to help make your trip more hassle free. Along the way, we’ll hopefully dispel some common misconceptions about flying with guns.
With limited exceptions for law enforcement officers—who may fly armed by meeting requirements of CFR 1544.219 Carriage of Accessible Weapons—all firearms, ammunition and firearm parts may only be transported in checked baggage, subject to state and local laws and the policies of the airline you are flying. Airlines may have limitations or fees, so check prior to making your reservations.
SAFE PASSAGE ACT
The U.S. Department of Justice has issued a written opinion that airline travelers with firearms are protected by law under the “Safe Passage Act” of the Firearm Owners Protection Act (FOPA), providing the following conditions are met:
- The person is traveling from somewhere he or she may lawfully possess and carry a firearm.
- En route to the airport, the firearm is unloaded and inaccessible from the passenger compartment of the person’s vehicle.
- The person transports the firearm directly from his vehicle to the airline check-in desk without any interruption in the transportation.
- The firearm is carried to the check-in desk unloaded and in a locked container.
The NRA Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) has issued a special advisory for New York and New Jersey airports. According to NRA, authorities at JFK, La Guardia, Newark and Albany airports have been known to enforce state and local firearms laws against airline travelers who are merely passing through the jurisdiction, despite federal law that protects travelers. NRA ILA states that in some cases, even persons traveling in full compliance with federal law have been arrested or threatened with arrest. As of this writing, litigation on this issue is ongoing.
NRA ILA recommends that travelers should strictly comply with FOPA and airline and TSA policies regarding firearms transportation, avoid any unnecessary deviations on the way to checking in their baggage, be well acquainted with the firearms laws of the jurisdictions between which they are traveling, and have any necessary permits or licenses ready for inspection.
Prior to traveling, check the laws and regulations at your destination(s). Be aware that other countries have different laws concerning the possession and transportation of firearms. Airlines may have their own restrictions regarding international travel with firearms. When going abroad, have a completed U.S. Customs Form 4457 Certificate of Registration for Personal Effects Taken Abroad (available at http://www.cbp.gov) with you for re-entry into the States with your firearm(s).
Attempting to bring a firearm onto a plane in carry-on luggage is a serious, “strict liability” federal offense. You can be convicted regardless of criminal intent. Forgetting that you possessed a firearm is no defense. “I didn’t know it was illegal” won’t cut it either. Criminal prosecution and civil penalties of up to $10,000 per violation can result. TSA is required to report all violations to law enforcement. Look through all your luggage before going to the airport and make certain you don’t have any prohibited item.
All firearms, ammunition and parts must be declared during the check-in process at the airline’s main ticket counter. Firearms may not be declared curbside. Give yourself some extra time to complete the firearm screening process. It’s better to have extra time on your hands than miss a flight.
All firearms carried as checked baggage must be unloaded and packed in a locked, hard-sided container. You can use a single key or combination lock. You’re the only one who can have the key or combination. Don’t use TSA locks on the container that secures your firearm(s), because they aren’t approved for securing firearms.
TSA defines a locked container as one that completely secures the firearm from being accessed. If the case can be pulled open with little effort, it won’t be allowed to be brought aboard the aircraft. The factory case that came with your handgun may or may not meet this requirement.
A firearm in a locked hard-sided container may be placed inside soft-sided luggage. A firearm that’s placed inside locked hard-sided luggage doesn’t have to be encased in a separate locked container.
Dishonest baggage handlers most commonly target smaller objects that can be discreetly removed from large luggage. Lockable zippers provide a false sense of security. For example, it only takes a ball-point pen and a few seconds to open a locked zipper on soft luggage. The zipper can be resealed just as quickly, with no signs of tampering. Tamper-evident seals are available but of limited value, since the luggage is often legitimately opened by TSA. If TSA does open your luggage and you aren’t present, they’re required to put a TSA Notice of Inspection Tag inside your luggage.
Common hard-sided luggage of the type sold in luggage stores often isn’t all that rugged or secure. While you can’t stop determined thieves, you do want to make it difficult for them.
I’m a fan of Pelican Storm Cases. They’re secure, crushproof, watertight and damn near unbreakable. I don’t think you’ll find any better protection for your firearms and sensitive gear. Many of the mid-size and larger Pelican Storm Cases are superb for use as luggage, not only to carry firearms, but also clothing and other essentials.
The smaller Pelican Storm Cases are great to secure your handgun if you’re traveling with soft-sided luggage. If your luggage has an interior frame, you can secure the case to the frame with a firearm cable lock.
GunVault Nano Vaults handgun cases are also popular. The compact 18-gauge steel Nano Vaults are inexpensive and have built-in locks. They come with a steel security cable that may be used to secure the case inside your luggage.
Black is the most popular color with luggage thieves. If you fly, you know that most black luggage looks alike. Thieves prefer it for this very reason. A color other than black will not only be easier for you to spot in the sea of black on the baggage carousel, but will make it less likely that someone will mistakenly (or not) confuse your luggage with theirs.
You can also use a luggage identification strap, handle wrap or bright luggage tags to differentiate it from the rest of the pack. A luggage strap also provides extra security and prevents the luggage from opening if a zipper or latch fails. Locking luggage straps are available with TSA-approved locks. Most luggage stores have them.
Luggage tags should have minimal personal information: your name, cell phone number, possibly your email address, and nothing more. Putting your physical address on a tag only tells a thief where to find more firearms. Use a secure tag and put it on before you leave home. Put your name and contact number inside the luggage as well. The same holds true for the firearm container.
TSA requires that ammunition be placed in an appropriate container: “securely packed in fiber, wood, or metal boxes, or other packaging specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition.” Loose ammunition isn’t allowed, not even in an ammo can. FAA regulations stipulate that the primers be protected/covered. Firearm magazines or clips may not be used for packing ammunition unless “they completely and securely enclose the ammunition (e.g., by securely covering the exposed portions of the magazine or by securely placing the magazine in a pouch, holder, holster or lanyard).”
Most airlines prefer ammunition to be in its original packaging from the manufacturer. Commercial plastic ammunition cases designed for reloaded ammo, such as MTM Case-Gard ammo boxes, are also fine. It’s a good idea to tape all ammo boxes shut to prevent any accidental spillage.
Boxed ammunition and unloaded magazines make the screening process easier. Not all airlines permit ammunition in magazines/clips, even if TSA regulations are met. TSA regulations do allow ammunition to be packed in the same locked container as the unloaded firearm, although not all airlines allow this. Black powder and percussion caps for black powder aren’t allowed on aircraft. Be aware of any ammunition restrictions at your destination. New Jersey, for example, places restrictions on the possession of hollow-point ammunition.
Prior to booking, familiarize yourself with airline limitations on the number of firearms that can be transported in a single case, rules regarding excess baggage exemptions, and limitations on the amount of ammunition that may be transported. Limitations may be based on weight (commonly 11 pounds gross weight per passenger, especially on international flights) or quantity, depending on the airline.
When you declare an unloaded firearm, you will be asked to sign a firearms declaration form. You may or may not be asked to show that it’s unloaded. The declaration form goes inside the case containing the firearm(s). It’s a federal felony if any search of checked luggage turns up a firearm without this declaration.
A cable lock on your secured firearm(s) shows screeners at a glance that the firearm is unloaded, as well as further securing the weapon. If you don’t have a cable lock, a thick nylon cord will also serve as an indicator. Instead of cable locks, remove the bolt on any bolt-action rifle and stow it in the case with the rifle prior to arrival at the airport. While these measures aren’t required, they will likely speed up the screening process.
Here’s a mouthful from Title 18 U.S.C., Section 922(e): “No common or contract carrier shall require or cause any label, tag, or other written notice to be placed on the outside of any package, luggage, or other container that such package, luggage, or other container contains a firearm.” In other words, don’t write “Guns inside!” on your baggage and don’t let the airline do it either.
After you declare your unloaded firearm(s) at the main ticket counter during check in, TSA will inspect your firearm case. You should remain in the area designated by the airline or TSA representative in order to take the key back after the container is cleared for transportation. Remember, you are the only one who can have the key or combination. This doesn’t mean that you can’t hand a key to the TSA, only that the key must remain under your control.
Luggage is X-rayed and screened for explosives. While larger airports often have state-of-the art explosive detection systems, many airports do not have this technology. Some methods can’t differentiate loaded ammunition or gunpowder residue from explosives. Hand inspection may be necessary.
TSA generally suggests that passengers should leave their bags unlocked to allow for hand inspection. This doesn’t apply to baggage containing firearms. All gun containers must still be locked after they are declared at the ticket counter.
If you are not present and TSA must open the container, a “reasonable” effort will be made to contact you. If TSA is unable to contact you, the container won’t be placed on the aircraft. The lock may be broken in instances where explosives are possibly present.
RULES, REGS AND NFA WEAPONS
Print out the TSA regulations (available at http://www.tsa.gov) and the airline’s rules on transporting firearms (available on the websites of all major airlines) and take them with you to the airport in case there are any questions. Keep in mind, rules change and the airline websites may not have been updated to reflect those changes. It’s a good idea to give the airline a call before making reservations.
If you will be traveling out of state with an NFA weapon, you need prior written authorization from ATF to transport any destructive device, machine gun, short-barreled rifle, or short-barreled shotgun under Section 922(a)(4), Title 18 U.S.C. You must make requests in writing, using ATF Form 20 (Form 5320.20) Application to Transport NFA Firearms (available at http://www.atf.gov) or a letter containing the same information, submitted in duplicate.
After the transportation is approved, ATF will return a Form 20 to you. Provide a copy of the approved Form 20 to the airline and keep a copy with you. While a Form 20 isn’t needed for transporting sound suppressors and AOWs, it’s still a good idea to have one for them. ATF approval only authorizes the transportation of the NFA weapon(s); all other laws and regulations still apply.
Fly nonstop to your destination whenever possible. The more connections you make, the greater the likelihood that your baggage may be routed incorrectly.
Avoid switching flights. If you check in for one flight and then get on a later flight, your baggage may remain on the original flight, arriving at baggage claim long before you do.
Upon arrival at your destination, go immediately to baggage claim and position yourself where the baggage emerges on the carousel. You want as few people as possible between you and your luggage.
If you can avoid it, don’t fly with high-value firearms.
Write down the serial numbers of all firearms that you’re transporting, and keep the list with you.
Check the airline’s insurance policy regarding firearms before booking.
Always check the contents of your luggage as soon as possible after arrival. Report missing or stolen luggage immediately.
Flying with firearms isn’t difficult. Airlines and TSA personnel are used to passengers flying with all types of guns. If it’s your first time, it may surprise you how smooth the whole process is. You’ll likely be left wondering why you haven’t flown with a firearm before.