How to travel with guns on an airline for beginners

I spent a lot of time on the road. Last year, I logged over 90 nights in hotels, over 50,000 air miles, and racked up rental car points like a pro. I had a request from a reader to put up a post talking about traveling with guns, so here is our best attempt. Please note that any interpretations of laws are not legal advice, because I’m not a lawyer.

Step 1: The TSA
It is absolutely, 100% legal for you to fly on a commercial airline with firearms in your checked luggage. It is also absolutely legal for that same checked luggage to contain both firearms and ammunition, so long as the guns aren’t loaded and the ammo is packed in either factory packaging or a container designed to transport ammo.

To check a gun on a major domestic carrier, you must have the gun secured in a locked, hard sided container. There are two types of locked containers: a smaller locked case inside a regular suitcase, or a rifle/pistol case which is locked on the outside and contains primarily your guns and ammunition. Their are advantages to both methods. I generally recommend having your locked case inside another regular looking suitcase. Secure the gun case with a lock to which only you have the key/combination and then lock your regular bag with a TSA lock to prevent tampering by airline employees.

If you go the “lock the whole bag” route, know that your entire bag must be a lockable hard case, such as one of the luggage sized pelican cases. This route has the disadvantage that pelican cases usually contain expensive items, and could be targeted for theft.

Step 2: The airlines
The TSA does not place any restrictions on the amount of ammunition nor number of firearms you may have in your checked luggage. Those are left to the discretion of the airlines. Most airlines restrict the amount of ammo allowed in your checked luggage to 11 pounds or less. If you’re wondering, that’s about 5 boxes of 9mm ammo. However, some airlines have larger weight allowances, such as Alaska which allows up to 50 pounds of ammo in your luggage. Well played, Alaska.

Some airlines will restrict the number of guns you can carry as well. For example, United allows a maximum of five guns in your checked luggage. This isn’t a problem for most people, unless you’re flying to a trade show or possibly a three-gun match.

Step 3: Getting your guns back
Depending on which message you’ve chosen for checking your gun, your bag will show up in one of three places. If you’ve gone discreet, it will quite likely get dropped off the baggage carrier like every other piece of luggage. If you’re using a large long gun case, it might get dumped at oversize baggage. Third option, it might be held at the baggage office because it’s a gun. Be prepared for any of these.

Now that we’ve gone through the basics, here’s how this will shake out in the real world.

  • Arrive at the airport
  • Check in like you normally would
  • When receiving your luggage tag from the agent, tell them that you need a “firearms declaration form

This is where the process can get interesting, and where it will vary from airport to airport. If you’ve gone incognito with your luggage, you’ll put the firearms declaration form inside the main bag, and likely on top of the smaller pistol case. Some airlines will have you put it inside the small pistol case. Both are acceptable. If you’re using a locked outer case like a pelican, you’ll need to put the tag inside the case, somewhere on top or in the vicinity of the gun itself. Do not under any circumstances allow the “Firearms Declaration Form” to be placed on the outside of your main/largest suitcase. It should never be placed where it could be seen from the outside of your primary bag if you’re traveling incog.

After that, the bag handling will be accomplished in many various ways. Some airports will simply take your checked luggage and have it scanned, if it alarms you’ll be summoned by security. Other airports you’ll walk it over to TSA for them to personally inspect it.

The TSA inspection is probably the most difficult part, because the TSA frequently doesn’t know their own rules and regulations. I have personally had pistol cases approved by one TSA agent as good to fly, only to be nearly destroyed by another TSA agent who said that the case was “too easy to pry apart” and declared unfit to fly. Generally speaking, don’t trust the hard case your gun came in. Go out and spend the money on a proper pistol case.

Finally, here are some general guidelines that I follow: I always print out the TSA’s web page on flying with guns. I also always print out the airline’s regulations. That way if I do run in to trouble, I have a handy, difficult to refute resource on hand to point to. Always be polite, even if you’re being bullied by a jumped up TSA thug who couldn’t hold down a job as a wal-mart greeter. I’ve had airline staff come to my aid against TSA clowns specifically because I was polite and courteous with the airline crew.

You’ll notice that I’ve not addressed state laws, driving with guns, or any of the other various topics. We’ll take a look at those in a later post, which will require even more details because of the terrible, awful byzantine nature and enforcement of state firearm laws. ProTip: unless you have a really good reason, avoid the north east coast.

17 thoughts on “How to travel with guns on an airline for beginners”

  1. Here’s a suggestion:

    I’ve had the check-in counter people ask to be displayed the gun, upon which they snatch it up and start waving it around, sweeping the entire damned airport including me, in an inane effort to determine whether it’s loaded–which they clearly have no idea how to do.

    I’ve since learned to travel with the gun field stripped, the separate pieces contained in a transparent Ziplock gallon-sized freezer bag. If one is concerned with metal parts scratching each other, these can each be placed in a separate smaller pint-sized freezer bag, then the collective bags put in the larger gallon-sized freezer bag. With revolvers, I just run a cable lock through the cylinder.

    For long guns similar options may be possible–I know there are giant-sized Ziplock bags available for purposes like storing clothes–but I’ve never travelled by air with a long gun, so I have no personal experience on that front.

    WIth the gun in pieces in the Ziplock bag the worst that can happen is they pick up a transparent bag of gun parts, clearly incapable of immediate function as a firearm.

    Note that I state “freezer bag” purposefully, as these are considerably heavier duty than the “normal” tissue-thin Ziplock bags.

    –Andrew, @LawSelfDefense

    1. oh man, I have some stories. Like the time in Boston when the cop told me to show him my gun was unloaded, and I asked “You want me to pick up this gun in the airport?”

  2. Sounds like this person at the airport should have been retired on the spot. If you want heavy duty, destruction proof bags, you could always invest a few xtra $$ into the Seal Line style, waterproof bags made for electronics. If I were traveling with a firearm that was worth over $1000 or more I certainly wouldn’t want it getting banged up by a band of imbeciles at the airport. I’d go so far as to wrap the parts in lightweight bubble wrap too. I think the idea of putting a cable lock through the barrel is much quicker, cost effective and easier to do. In fact, the simple ZIP tying open the action like many gun shows require is the easiest route. You could run one through the barrel and another through the magazine well; no question of it being empty at that point (unless you’re brain dead).

  3. Caleb, very nice job laying out how to travel by plane; especially mentioning to print out the regulations of TSA & your specific airline(s). As you mentioned don’t forget to check out state laws you are traveling through and where you are going to have to carry luggage with a weapon. Don’t want to end up in the “Free Hotel”.

  4. Very good advice to bring along a print out of both the TSA rules and the Airline’s rules that you are flying on. I have encountered the TSA agent that did not know their own rules and also could not identify my 45 cal ammo! I’ve also had ticket agents freak out when I opened the gun case that they required me to open as if I was pointing the gun lying there at them.
    My general advice would be to take the first flight out…and arrive really early to avoid the onlookers and any rush with TSA and their process as every airport is different.
    And ALWAYS be impressively polite and patient.

  5. Back in the days of two free checked bags, I would field strip any guns possible and store the separate parts in different suitcases. Even if someone did manage to steal one of the bags, they weren’t getting a functioning firearm.

  6. Another tip if you’re traveling to a match, particularly if its in a restrictive state, make sure you have copy of the NRA letter identifying that you are participating in a sanctioned match. That letter puts you into a category under Federal law that will make it more difficult for a state or local agency to hassle you.

  7. Fortunately DIA was very simple. I declared my firearms, signed the form stating they were in-fact unloaded. Threw the card in my case and onto the x-ray I went. The worst part was on the case I bough for transport, the outer key hole spun and I could not get it unlocked to insert the card. That was fun, lol… Dirty looks from the baggage handler, and the guys that looked like they were going on safari, or to war. At least for future I know what the issue is if I can’t get the thing unlocked lol.

  8. Speaking as someone who spent six hours in a cell with his hands cuffed behind his back, and had to spend a couple thousand dollars in legal fees, I feel I can say that even when you do everything properly you can still wind up in the clink. See, it isnt enough that you know how to fly with firearms, the people who work for the airline have to know as well…and when they don’t, well, sometimes you wind up paying for their incompetence.

  9. I’ve only flown with a revolver once. Well, technically, that was my dad, but I was still the one doing the research on it for him. Surprisingly, it was a fairly low hassle at LAX. Can’t remember the airline for sure, but I think it may have been United. Just told the person at the desk we were declaring a firearm and they gave us the papers and my dad took his suitcase to TSA to run it through the x-ray and that was it. Even found a hard pistol case on a good deal at a local sporting goods store near my grandma’s house.

  10. A few decades ago, a friend of my father was bird hunting in Canada, and connected through Logan. He fell for the “show me your firearm” trick, and was arrested. No conviction, but it cost him time and money, and a very nice Italian O/U.

  11. Northeast is not all that bad!

    New Hampshire has very reasonable CC regulations and recognizes many out of state CC licenses. Don’t lump all Northeast in one bag just because of MA and NY and ….

    ME

  12. What in particular? I don’t recall the FAA regs having changed in the last 5 years. I’m sure Ollie would update the site if he was informed of an error or change.

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