I have read more articles than I remember about how to pack a gun if you want to take it on an airplane for your trip out of town. On the other hand, not much is out there walking you through what to expect at the airport.
The number one rule is “YOUR UNLOADED GUN, AND ALL RELATED ITEMS HAVE TO BE CHECKED IN AT THE BAGGAGE COUNTER.” It sounds simple, but it would surprise you how many people get caught going through the security screening with something they shouldn’t. My biggest fear is that someday I will miss that single round of ammo that got dropped in my carry-on by mistake, and I will have to explain to the TSA why it’s there.
I never realized how many signs there were at O’Hare warning you about having a gun until I took pictures for this article, and surprisingly, no one asked why I stopped at all of them for some photos. I covered an incident last year where a Chicago teacher tried to take his handgun through one of these TSA checkpoints; how he missed all the signs is beyond me.
On one of my trips out of Dallas, I checked my firearm with the ticket agent, and she was not clear on the process. I told her there was a form I needed to fill out and that she would need to see how my gun was packed, etc. Well, she found the form, and as we got the process underway, she called over to who I assume was her supervisor to ask some questions. The supervisor responded, “he seems to know how it works. You’re doing just fine.” This is why you do your homework before you go to the airport, because you may get an employee that is new or doesn’t know how things work.
I live in the Chicago area, and people seem to think O’Hare airport will be all kinds of problems because of the strict gun laws. It is no big deal, and you go through the same process you would at any other airport across the country. New York, though, is a different story for a separate article. One interesting experience was when I checked in, and the ticket agent handed me the wrong form. Instead of a firearm declaration card, she gave me a piece of paper that said, “NOTICE TO ARMED INDIVIDUALS.” I laughed as I gave it back and said, “I wish this was the right one, but I think you might get us both in a little trouble if I use it.” I am not law enforcement, and I might have ended up on a no-fly list for filling it out.
Packing your Gun for The Flight
You could spend all day shopping for a case, but there are a couple of main points to touch on. Your firearm has to be locked in a hard case that closes tight enough that they cannot pry it open. It probably will not pass if you can get anything larger than a pencil into the area where the top meets the bottom. It should be filled with foam so the contents will not move around and be able to be securely locked.
Guidelines and the Law
There are two places you need to look because the guidelines may differ. Look at the rules for your airline and the TSA; printing them off could save you some headaches later. This guide is meant for domestic travel, so do your homework if you are flying to another country.
Read the airline’s policy, and again I recommend printing it off just in case you get a ticket agent that doesn’t know the routine. Pay attention to details like how much ammunition you can pack and where to pick up your baggage at your destination. Here are examples of some different airline policies and the declaration tags they use.
Southwest Firearm Policy, like many airlines, limits you to 11 lbs. of ammunition per person, and they prohibit “self-defense sprays (such as pepper spray) on all flights; they are not allowed in checked bags or in your carry-on.” Most airlines have an overall baggage weight of 50lbs, and if you exceed that, they are going to charge you an additional fee.
Editor’s Note: I travel once a week and have done so many times with firearms and ammo. Only once have I had my ammo checked and weighed, so it does happen. And that one time, I was over the weight limit and had to leave a few precious boxes of .300 Blackout with the counter agent.
Delta’s firearm policy limits you to four long guns and five handguns per case.
Star Alliance Firearm Policy includes several international airlines, including Air Canada. Their page says, “Carriage of weapons must be requested and approved in advance.”
The policy for Spirit Airlines is challenging to find, and they bury their rules on page 28 of a 57-page document. They say, “a guest checking multiple firearms must complete a Firearms Declaration tag for each firearm checked.”
Next Up are the TSA Guidelines
The entire list of rules is on the TSA website.
“You may transport unloaded firearms in a locked, hard-sided container as checked baggage only. Declare the firearm and/or ammunition to the airline when checking your bag at the ticket counter. The container must completely secure the firearm from being accessed. Locked cases that can be easily opened are not permitted. Be aware that the container the firearm was in when purchased may not adequately secure the firearm when it is transported in checked baggage.”
Your ammunition needs to be in the original box or container or something that is designed to hold ammunition. It can not be lying loose in your case.
49 CFR 175.10(a)(8) “Small arms ammunition for personal use carried by a crewmember or passenger in checked baggage only, if securely packed in boxes or other packaging specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition. Ammunition clips and magazines must also be securely boxed.”
This section is from the TSA on transporting firearms and ammunition, which can be confusing. The TSA should only open your gun case with you there, so if you use an actual TSA lock, they will have a master key that can open it. Therefore, it is a good idea not to use a TSA lock, and if they request the key, make sure you are present when they use it.
“Only the passenger should retain the key or combination to the lock unless TSA personnel request the key to open the firearm container to ensure compliance with TSA regulations. You may use any brand or type of lock to secure your firearm case, including TSA-recognized locks.”
§ 1540.111 (iv) Carriage of weapons, explosives, and incendiaries by individuals. (iv) The container in which it is carried is locked, and only the passenger retains the key or combination.
The process is usually smooth, but just in case, allow yourself extra time. Ensure you disarm and have your firearm properly packed BEFORE arriving at the airport. Walk up to the check-in counter (You can not check your baggage curbside) like you usually would and tell them, “I have a firearm to declare.” Don’t walk up and say something like “I have a gun,” because whomever you say that to will not hear a darn thing you say after that because you just scared the crap out of them.
Put your luggage on the scale but do not open it up. The agent will have some paperwork for you to fill out, and when the time comes, they will ask to see how you packed your guns. I try not to be inconspicuous, and when I open my suitcase, I face it towards the agent, so it is harder for other passengers in line behind me to see the contents and possibly make them nervous. At this point, I have had things go a few different ways.
1. They may just look at the case and ask, “is it unloaded? “to which I answer, “yes,” and I have literally had them toss the filled-out declaration tag in and send me on my way. The ticket agent never even opened the box my gun was in.
You can be fined and possibly face criminal charges for having your gun loaded in your checked baggage, so do not forget to confirm it is empty before you pack. I do an additional step and put a red zip tie or chamber flag through the barrel, so a quick visual look will ensure it is empty.
2. They will usually have you open the locked gun case and inspect the contents and then tape the tag to the outside of the gun box.
They should not put the declaration tag on the outside of your luggage because it is like advertising you have a gun and are just asking for it to be stolen. In addition, if an agent attempts to tag the exterior of the case in a way that makes it obvious that it contains a firearm, inform them federal law prohibits it.
18 USC Sec. 922(e), “No common or contract carrier shall require or cause any label, tag, or other written notice to be placed on the outside of any package, luggage, or other container that such package, luggage, or other container contains a firearm.”
Editor’s Note: Traveling to Louisiana with Southwest just last week, I had a counter agent that was new to the firearms declaration process, and she wanted to tape it to the outside of the box. I informed her that they usually go inside the case and that they aren’t supposed to mark the case to show that it has a firearm. She confirmed with someone else and then put the card inside the case. This is why it is good to know the laws and guidelines.
If you think guns do not disappear on the way to their destination, read about the two New York Police officers who flew to Atlanta last month and found their firearms missing out of their baggage when they arrived.
There is one last thing I do to make it harder for someone to steal my firearms. I lock my hard case to the frame inside my suitcase with a cable lock. That way, even if someone sees the gun case, they will still have to cut the cable to get it out.
The last thing I do before closing my suitcase is to take a picture of everything, just in case I need proof of what was there.
TSA will run it through the machine then, if all goes well, they give it back to the airline representative. Then the agent for the airline will take your bag and put it on the conveyor to get loaded onto the plane. It is a good idea to wait in the general area for 15 to 20 mins to ensure there are no other problems before you go through the security screening. In the unlikely event, they need to inspect it again, they don’t have to track you down for access.
Editor’s Note: Some airports may require you to wait. Harry Reid Airport in Las Vegas, NV, requires you to wait 15 minutes after checking in a firearm in case TSA needs you to open it again. Make sure you plan for this extra time.
Picking your bags up when you arrive at your destination is simple because it will come out with all the other baggage. If it is in its own case and not inside your luggage, it may be at the designated baggage office for oversized or lost luggage.
There is a remote possibility you may someday see this tag, which means TSA had gone through your suitcase and done a deeper inspection. If this is the case, go through your bag and make sure nothing is missing and, if so, immediately notify the proper authorities.
So summing everything up:
- Read the rules from both the TSA and the airline you will be flying on
- Use a hard-sided case with a non-TSA lock
- Make sure your gun is unloaded
- Know the laws where you are going, including any stops along the way
- If you are traveling internationally, there will be additional rules not covered here
It sounds like a lot of information, but it’s really easy once you have the right case and locks. Just be cool to the airline and TSA workers, and give yourself additional time to get through the process.