One question that I see frequently on the Internet and in forum chat rooms has to do with flying with firearms. Whether you are traveling domestically with a handgun or a long gun, following the guidelines set forth by the individual airline and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is of the utmost importance.
Note that the airlines and TSA can (and do) change requirements occasionally, so be sure to always check current regulations (www.tsa.gov).
Equally as important as knowing the airline and TSA rules about flying with firearms, is knowing the local firearm (and ammunition) laws where you are traveling through (layovers) and to. You also need to know the laws of your return flight / departure location - where you will be traveling out of when going home. What might be legal in one state, may just be a felony in another. It is always YOUR responsibility to check the laws of local jurisdictions any time you travel. And keep in mind that laws change regularly and that laws often vary for rifles, shotguns and handguns.
SHORT AND SWEET
Before I get into the deets, here is the short & sweet on air travel with guns. Firearms must:
- be unloaded
- be locked in a hard-sided case / container
- be transported in checked baggage only
- be declared each time you present checked baggage
FREQUENT FIREARM FLYER
I frequently travel with firearms, and whether I’m heading to a shooting competition, a work-related convention or a training event, the process has become familiar. I’ve learned how to make traveling with firearms as easy as possible.
For many though, flying can be stressful, and bringing along guns may create some additional anxiety. However, if you are knowledgeable, polite and just follow the rules, traveling with firearms should become a smooth, streamlined process. And even if things don’t go as planned, keep calm and carry on - creating issues for the people at the ticket counter will NOT make things easier.
Before we go any further, and just to be clear, when I reference flying with firearms I mean, and only mean, flying with firearms that are in your checked luggage. Unless you have federal law-enforcement credentials, it is illegal to have a firearm in your carry-on or on your person when boarding an airplane.
Over the decades, I have flown on almost every big-name domestic airline (and there used to be a lot more than 3 or 4). During my travels, I have noted that many of the airlines have slightly different policies as they relate to flying with firearms, especially if flying with ammo or internationally (but that’s a different blog). My advice again is to know the airline’s policies before you leave for the airport (policies can be found on the airline’s website), to abide by the airline's requests and to be polite, even if one airline’s policy is different from another.
TSA rules and procedures should be standard.
And it’s not a bad idea to print the regulations so you have a copy with you at the airport, should the need arise to reference them.
Let’s start with how to pack the firearm. Successful flying with firearms starts at home, with an unloaded gun. When I travel with my SAINT™ Edge AR-15, I always put the unloaded rifle inside a soft case and then place the soft case inside a hard plastic case - one that is specifically designed for carrying long guns. Some of my favorite hard-case brands are Pelican, Storm and Explorer. I know there are other manufacturers out there, but these are the cases that I have tested and traveled with. You can also get some hard cases with foam inserts that are custom formed or cut specific to your model of firearm. And that’s pretty cool!
These hard, impact-resistant rifle cases are very rugged. They are touted as crush-proof, dust-proof and water-tight and definitely stand up to the abuse of baggage handlers who are having a bad day and frequent travel. The cases have handles and wheels to make transporting the rifle case much easier. There are also designated areas on the cases for placing padlocks. I highly suggest purchasing TSA-approved cables & locks for all of your gun cases. Flying can be a strain on the brain and ticker, and approved locks just make dealing with TSA that much easier and fast.
CURBSIDE - NO GO
Note that when arriving at the airport, you cannot check your luggage with the baggage handlers outside, which is sometimes referred to as “curbside check in”. You must take your gun case to the ticket counter to “declare” your firearm.
When it’s your turn with the ticketing agent, notify them [nicely] that you have an unloaded firearm to declare in your luggage. The ticket agent will ask you to fill out a firearm declaration card (for each firearm). Write your name and mailing address on the card, and then sign and date the back side. READ this card. You are declaring that you have a firearm and that the firearm is unloaded.
The agent may ask to see the unloaded firearm. They then will ask you to place the orange copy of the declaration card inside the case with the firearm and then LOCK the external hard case. The TSA agents are going to want to see this card when they scan your bag, so make sure it’s easily viewable / accessible.
Once you are checked in and your bags have been tagged, most airlines will have a representative escort you to the TSA area. Once there, the TSA agent will scan your bag and may open your bag for inspection (in my case, every single time). Once TSA gives you the green light, you are allowed to leave and head to security (hope you are TSA Pre-Check). And that should be the end of your firearm-related duties, until you land.
I have run into virtually no issues when traveling with firearms, with the rare and one exception of flying out of New York City. But that too is a topic for another article.
Sidenote - I pack my ammunition and unloaded magazines in separate, small storage containers, in the same hard case as the gun or in another case if weight is an issue. If you pack ammunition in the same case that your firearm is in, it must be in the original ammunition packaging, or a hard box that is designed for ammunition.
I have had people advise me to load your ammunition into the firearm’s magazines. I would NOT, I repeat, NOT, do this. Also note that airlines have a weight limit on the amount of ammunition you can check in your luggage. And it’s never enough … so consider shipping your ammunition “ground” if you need a considerable amount.
WHEELS DOWN - PRIORITY ONE
Once you’ve landed, head straight to baggage claim. Your gun case may come out on the carousel or it could be with over-sized baggage or held in the airline customer service area. Again, different airlines, different airports, do baggage delivery differently. Ask questions to locate your gun case as soon as possible.
Once your case is in your possession, and before you leave the airport, make sure your firearm(s) is actually still in the case. Always keep a description of the firearms you travel with - makes, models, and serial numbers minimum - with you in the event of loss or theft. Report loss / theft to the airline customer service rep and local law enforcement ASAP.
Technology continues to improve our lives, and with the availability of smart luggage tracking devices, our future travels may become even more worry-free. I have not personally tested any of the GPS luggage trackers, but it’s on my list of to-dos. If you have a device you trust and like, drop me a line. I’m going to buy one soon, as these GPS tracking units seem like a good investment, an affordable piece of insurance, to guarantee that my gun arrives safe and sound to my final destination - and back home again.
READY TO FLY WITH FIREARMS
So now you have no excuse NOT to travel to the USPSA Multi-Gun Nationals. Registration is still open. :) By following these simple travel guidelines you shouldn’t have any issues when flying with your new SAINT™ Edge rifle. Your only concern will be how well you are going to perform at the match! Best of luck with your travels and match results, fellow shooter - go book your airfare and get ready to “declare”.