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Firearms and Air Travel Primer

January 3, 2020

By Mike Keleher

I know it can be pretty daunting to even consider taking a firearm with you when part of your trip includes air travel. The idea of losing control over your gun(s) in transit lodged inside checked luggage is a pretty scary thought.

None of us want our legally owned and possessed firearms to end up in the hands of criminals, and much like you, I have no trust in the moral integrity of unseen baggage handlers and what happens when my checked bag disappears behind the wall and I see it again far far way on another conveyor belt. For my own piece of mind and less worry, I just pretend it is a magic trick appearing out of thin air at the far end.

The sheer number of  state and local rules involved with taking a firearm to a city owned airport gun free zone are huge, let alone involving the airline rules and federal FAA sky laws and of course their pesky younger brother the TSA.

However, it can be done legally, and with much less hassle than you probably imagine if you have never made such a trip. Skipping NYC and New Jersey (too much bad law and bad practices to go into there…whew!) every other jurisdiction has to let you transport your weapon if you follow a couple of simple rules.

I just got back from such a trip, and being pretty fresh in my mind I thought people who have never flown with a firearm could benefit from explanation of the rules and practices-as well as seeing some of my sufferings within the regs and how things really work! For those of you who have transported firearms and have stories to tell (good or horrific) you can chime in below in the comments section. (BTW Horrific airline stories are always more entertaining!)

First teaching point-every airline is different. They all have their own private rules on how they do things. Local airports have their own law based practices too. You can look up each airline’s rules on their website before leaving for the airport and you should know the state transport laws as well. TSA has some good overarching advice on their website as does www.tsatraveltips.us.

One of the frustrating parts to this travel story, is you are trying to do everything correctly but individual players can deviate from the “rules” at any time making it harder or frustrating. Be polite, and keep in mind these people do have infinite capacity to make things worse.  Also, they may be working at either their full brain capacity or alternatively just damned lucky to show up for work fully dressed not wearing their underwear on the outside.

Teaching point number two- every law on the books (and there are a lot of books) says your gun must be unloaded and locked inside a hard sided container. This can cover a wide variety of containers which must be lockable and in fact locked when you turn it over for transport. You can look up your box on the internet to see if it is “TSA approved” for transport. If you are unsure, call the airline and ask questions.

Generally, most modern plastic pistol boxes will qualify if they have a padlock around the handle or through designated eyelets that keep someone from popping the top loose and slipping the gun out.

For pistols, I prefer the metal lock boxes with barrel type keys or small keys made by companies like Snapsafe and Hornady. They also come equipped with aircraft cable leashes which I run through the rails inside my luggage. Unzip the lining and you may have points to loop the cable to the bag itself. You gotta steal my whole bag mister if you want my gun. I’m not going to make it easy.


Photo Credit: Snapsafe.com

I don’t care for the metal boxes with combination locks set into the box. I have had them fail and just don’t trust them any longer.

Before I leave home, I also take pictures on my phone of the outside of my bag, the pistol box, my pistol, and it’s serial number. In the event of a missing bag/gun I can show and send those pictures immediately.

Another point about locked boxes, is you can’t put any ammo inside with the pistol or revolver for “safety reasons.” It’s a rule, just go with it. They want no ammo, empty mags out of the gun, and empty cylinders… with no ability for the non-existent ammo to jump into them and then fly the loaded assembly into your gun, inside a locked case, inside your suitcase ala one of Houdini’s best tricks.

It may come as a surprise, but you can carry live ammo inside your suitcase, just not inside the locked gun box. I recommend using factory ammo boxes or plastic ammo boxes. If it looks ordinary it should not be a problem for baggage screeners. If you have ammo just scattered loosely among your underthings someone at the x-ray machine may inquire further about your packing preferences/sanity.

Again, every airline is different, and I have seen them list the amount of ammo you can put in a suitcase from 5 lbs to 50 lbs (Go Alaska Airlines!). Look it up on the websites if you have a question.

Long gun cases should be the least problematic shouldn’t they? They are huge, have big latches and locks and look exactly like gun cases. For some reason they can draw more attention than having a pistol box inside a piece of checked luggage. I don’t know why this is, but there are idiots everywhere and there are more long gun horror stories around than handgun stories.

Again, take pictures of your long guns, serial numbers and the case, be polite, and cross your fingers things work out OK. If you check your guns in at the registration desk and you make it 10 minutes without hearing your name being announced to report to the closest TSA checkpoint you and your guns are probably OK.

Oh, and about the padlocks-don’t scrimp. Get good quality locks that cost more than a buck at the Dollar Store-think about what you are protecting.

There is another learning point here about locks you need to heed: DONT BUY THE TSA APPROVED PADLOCKS TO SECURE YOUR GUNS. Amazon and other places sell “TSA Luggage Locks” along with the soothing story that travel can be stressful and these locks are so wonderful you won’t have to worry any more. Well here’s the real scoop Skippy, if it is TSA approved it means they probably have master keys and combos to open those locks even if you are not there! This evolved after 9/11 and the idea they could just open your lock if deemed “necessary” was nicer than just cutting the locks off. Get some good, name brand locks for your boxes and you keep the key or combo with you. Never loan or give it to anyone else on your trip. If airport/airline/police want the box opened, you open it and you lock it back up.


Photo credit: Amazon.com

My worst long gun story involves flying with an AR-15 and a Benelli shotgun to a three gun match from a major airport (no problem) in a Cabelas Xtreme double gun case (lifetime warranty) which would make a good stealth submarine or home for a family of four, to a regional airport. These are high dollar guns, and I was of course nervous about the whole thing because if they disappeared I could never talk my way past my wife to purchase yet another Benelli!

When I arrived at the regional airport, I waited not too patiently at the luggage conveyor watching every piece of luggage that was not my long gun container slide out. When the bags stopped coming, and the belt turned off I started to sweat in earnest and look around for the baggage office. You know that pit of the stomach sensation with you realize your bag isn’t coming and you wonder if your guns are missing you too?

As I walked rather swiftly across the luggage area, I happened to see an unattended alcove across the way that was marked “Oversized Luggage” and there of course was my gun case sitting by a pair of snow skis and a folded baby stroller. There was no one within 100 yards of the Oversize area-no staff, no customers. My case was sitting there looking just like…well… an expensive gun case containing expensive guns…I was not amused.

Here is my most recent example of seeing the “rules” in action. Last week I flew on Southwest Airlines from a major airport (Rhymes with Obare) with a pistol and the competent clerk did not bat an eye when I announced “I am transporting an unloaded firearm in a locked container in the bag I wish to check.”

You have to go to one of the live human being check-in desks when flying with a checked firearm . You can’t do the self-service kiosk thing and label your bag yourself…unless you want to be severely disappointed real soon and become the subject of a lot of scrambling law enforcement activity and/or prosecution. Go see the person at the counter to check in your bag and firearm!

The Southwest Rep filled out a card with my name, address and phone, which I signed, then taped it onto the lid of my metal box inside the checked bag which I opened and proudly displayed. I did not have to open the gun box.  Have a good flight. Buh-bye. Upon landing and picking up my checked bag I discreetly insured the box was still inside the bag and moved on.

The Southwest Airlines official Firearms Declaration Tag states, I understand carrying a loaded weapon is a violation for federal laws and regarding the firearm in my luggage:

1. Chambers are free of ammo and “magazine clip” (their phrase not mine) has been removed when applicable.

2. Loaded Mags or clips are packaged to prevent accidental activation of the primer. (So you could have loaded mags in the big bag? Not a swell idea. Put em in a box would ya? Load them up when you get to the other end.)

3. The unloaded firearm is inside a hard-sided locked container and I alone am in possession of the key or combination.

4. My total allowance of checked luggage contains no more than 11 pounds of ammunition and is packaged in an appropriate container. (11 pounds made me smile and then my warped imagination kicked in thinking about people standing on a bathroom scale with boxes of ammo, how about you?)

….and I understand state laws vary and I am responsible of knowing and following firearm laws of states through which I will be traveling (not the ones I am flying over!)

On the flight back, starting at the regional airport with the same airline, the “Other Kind of Clerk” filled out the same card and then said I had to open the gun box. I said OK, and made mention it was unloaded and no ammo was in the box. She said “Well we have to make sure it doesn’t have a clip in it, and is unloaded.” I advised it was a revolver, does not have a magazine or clip, and the cylinder was indeed empty and proceeded to unlock and open the box. She glanced-then looked away and said “OK, we are just required to check.” I locked the box back up and she tossed the card on top. My Marvel-Meter was in the red but I kept moving. You see, the revolver in the box was wrapped inside a heavy plastic bag that was not see-through and I did not touch the gun of course or remove it and in fact, the hinged lid only opens about 45 degrees.

She did not see shit. Or insure anything. She just mouthed the words. I could have been smuggling human brains in there and she would not have known the difference. I wandered off with “We are required to check” ringing in my ears. (Refer back to my earlier reference to people who are just lucky enough to show up for work most days.)

In general, airline employees don’t want to go near your guns. They might even call over airport police to view them to insure they are unloaded.

Airport Police don’t want to touch them either-they are not experts at all guns. They shouldn’t be touching them either. Have they? Oh sure. I’ve seen it and I cringe and hope for the best, but most big airport police see enough guns they just want to do the minimal involvement and get back to sitting down somewhere and wondering how long it takes to reach retirement age. (I’m a kidder. I know some very diligent airport police who do a difficult job dealing with travelers every single day-and if any thing goes wrong at an airport, it goes real wrong.)

Well that is about it for this session on the rules of the sky road when it comes to firearms and checked luggage. Anybody got some stories to share in the comments section below?

3 Responses to Firearms and Air Travel Primer

  1. Alpha Co. on January 6, 2020 at 9:41 am

    I have one:

    I know this might seem like common sense, but you have to make sure that when the ticket agents direct you to take your firearms/long guns to the TSA for check and travel, that does NOT mean the TSA checkpoint! I have seen many individuals arrested for bringing their weapons to the checkpoint, place it on the belt for the X-Ray machine and then be surprised when they get surrounded by police and TSA on the other side. Now, I have seen situations where the person claims they “forgot” it was in there. Those are the idiots who shouldn’t own a weapon. But the others I’ve seen were people who were instructed to bring the weapons to TSA and thought that meant the checkpoint. TSA will ALWAYS have a separate baggage area for oversized items and cases (guns) to go through. If you are traveling out of an airport you are not familiar with or this is your first time traveling with a weapon, make sure you go to the right location. When in doubt, ask. And if necessary, request an airline rep to escort you there!

    I give you this advice as someone who was attached to the Department of Homeland Security, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism unit. As much as we joke about TSA and their abilities, when it comes down to it, they can still wreck your world if you screw this up! And the Airport Police have their own share of slugs, but you’d be surprised how quick those “ready to retire” slugs come to life and use many years of experience from the glory days on your butt when they arrest or engage you. Sh*t gets real quick when weapons are involved. Don’t mess up!

    Safe travels!

    • Mike Keleher on January 6, 2020 at 4:54 pm

      Excellent advice Alpha. I spent 30 years as a federal agent and traveled armed through airports and on airplanes, and while the paperwork and procedures were very different for officers the bottom line remained the same as for civilians who are transporting through checked luggage-if there is a problem you are the one who brought the gun and will be blamed.

  2. jboch on January 27, 2020 at 2:06 pm

    Ammo must be in the locked box with the gun with Delta. In factory containers.