Five Lessons On Flying With Handguns
July 14th, 2019
4 minute read
Yes, you can bring firearms on your flight. How much of a hassle it is depends on your pre-flight preparedness. I hate flying, for a number of reasons (I hate crowds, I hate lines, I hate having to take off my pistol and trust my safety to people less skilled, etc.), but that still doesn’t stop me from getting on planes at least half a dozen times a year. Most of the time I do fly with firearms in my checked baggage, and over the years I have learned a few tricks that may ease your travels.
Check out Handguns Magazine for more expert advice on everyday carry.
Check the Rules
While the TSA does not limit the number of firearms you can have in your checked baggage, I know of at least one airline that does. Every airline has a website with their specific rules on transportation of firearms and ammunition – check it. Basically, the firearm must be unloaded and in a locked case and declared during the ticket counter check-in process. I recommend acting professional, polite (as if you’ve checked guns dozens of times before), and like it’s no big deal, because it shouldn’t be. A smile will get you checked in quicker and with less problems than an attitude.
Simply having a padlock on your case isn’t good enough for the TSA. They want to make sure that the lock prevents access to the gun inside, and I have had agents undo the latches on my gun case and attempt to pry it open wide enough to pull the gun out. This is surprisingly easy with some rifle cases (I recommend a padlock at each end), and even some handgun cases. Don’t be gentle when you test your cases, because the TSA agents won’t be. I know one gun writer whose rifle cases were destroyed by TSA agents using pipes as crowbars, and then told he couldn’t fly with them because his rifle cases would no longer securely lock. What this has to do with combating terrorism I’m a little fuzzy on.
Although regulations don’t require it, I always put my locked pistol case inside a locked piece of luggage, and I’ve had TSA cut the padlock off the luggage just to get a look at the pistol case. Why? I have no idea.
Currently, when I am just travelling with a pistol or two, I put them in a Pelican 1495 case. In addition to the combo lock built into the case itself I secure it with a combination padlock. To get to the guns inside, someone would need boltcutters AND a bandsaw. I check it as a separate piece of luggage.
Editor’s note: Check out Paul Carlson’s review of the Nanuk 935 gun case. It proved to be a rugged case for pistol transportation.
Passengers are limited to 11 pounds of ammunition in their checked luggage, and none at all in their carry-ons. That won’t be a problem if you’re heading somewhere to hunt, but if you’re flying to some sort of training event or shooting competition, 11 pounds isn’t much at all. Some venues will let you mail your ammo to yourself.
The ammunition also has to be either in factory boxes or boxes specifically designed to hold ammunition. This means no loose, bulk-packed ammo. Also, many gate agents interpret this as “must be in factory boxes,” so if you have unmarked boxes for your handloads, you might have to educate the counter agent (see #5).
I often am checking my carry gun, and my carry ammunition is Winchester Ranger +P+ 9mm, which unfortunately is not offered for sale to civilians, so the boxes are marked “For Law Enforcement Use Only.” That is Winchester’s preference and the dictum has no legal bearing, but instead of trying to explain this to the counter agent I usually just put the ammo in another box.
Once the counter agent has had you fill out the orange “Unloaded Firearm” form and put it in the case next to the gun, the TSA may want to examine the case or run it through a scanner right then. Sometimes the counter agent just has me lock the case up and they put it on the conveyor belt, with the warning to stick around for a few minutes in case the TSA “needs to get in the case.” If they do, a TSA agent may approach you and ask for the keys to the padlock so they can open the case, which may be at a nearby station or somewhere not even in view. This is why I don’t use key locks but only combination locks so that I have to open the case myself, which means I will be present anytime the case is open. Don’t ever let anyone open your gun case when you’re not present–which means NEVER use “TSA-approved” luggage locks for your gun cases, because they have master keys for those. I won’t use them on any of my luggage, because I want to know when people are going through my stuff.
You could use key locks and simply refuse to let anyone else open the case unless you’re present. This happened to a friend of mine. The TSA agent wouldn’t bring the case to him as it was in a “secure area” he wasn’t cleared for, and my friend refused to turn over the keys because he didn’t want them opening his gun case when he wasn’t present. The increasingly angry TSA agent threatened to break into the case. My friend threatened to call the ATF and report his guns stolen, which would have shut down the whole airport (he wasn’t bluffing). Who won the argument? Let’s just say the TSA (whose employees are not sworn law enforcement agents) is more afraid of the ATF than the other way around.
If the TSA sees you’re using combination padlocks, they know getting your case open won’t be as simple as asking for your keys.
Bring the Rules
If you fly enough, you will run into an airline or TSA employee who either is a jerk, idiot, or just hates guns (or some combination of the three). It’s happened to me and just about everybody I know who flies with guns frequently. Why you’re checking a gun is none of their business (Why do you own a gun? Are you a cop? Are you going to be doing some shooting? Why do you need two guns? Why do you have all that ammunition? – I’ve heard all of these questions at one time or another. You don’t have to answer them.)
Go to the TSA website and print out their rules, and also print out the rules from the website of whichever airline you’re using. If the counter agent who’s checking you in starts claiming you’re only allowed one box of ammo or that the gun has wear a trigger lock, or something else you know to be incorrect, you’ll have their own rules printed out and ready. Doing this has solved all sorts of problems for several people I know.
Originally appeared in Handguns Magazine.