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.