How To

Flying with Firearms: Addressing the Gray Areas

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TSA's worst nightmare? Not if you follow the rules and use a lockable case like this one.

TSA's worst nightmare? Not if you follow the rules and use a lockable case like this one.

Whether you have to fly with a firearm for work, training, the hunt of a lifetime, or just to bring your gun with you for personal security, you need to play nice with the feds.

When I travel to states friendly with my concealed carry permit, I almost always travel with a gun. Mainly because it’s my lifestyle choice—I choose to protect my family and myself wherever we are. But there’s an additional reason I choose to tote a gun through inconvenient places like airports. It’s my right and I want to keep the system “acclimated” to dealing with people having guns. If I do my part to make sure the airline ticket counter staff and TSA see guns moving safely through our travel system, day after day, then it continues to be no big deal—as it should be. If we all succumb to the pressure of our friendly, helpful, and honest government making traveling with a firearm “too much trouble” then the “terrorists win,” so to speak.

With that said, let’s take a look at a couple of the more ambiguous questions about flying with guns.

Question: You mean I can fly on a commercial airline with a gun?

Answer: It’s shocking how many people are shocked by this. Why yes, you can—provided of course that you are going from a point of origin where you can legally have that gun to another destination where you can legally possess that gun. Rather than regurgitate the basic process here, I’ll point you to the TSA’s own page for the latest regulations. Print a copy of this to bring with you the day before you leave as the page’s content changes frequently. Also, check your airlines policy before you go. I’ve linked to a number of airline policies later in this article.

Can the TSA, or their contracted agents, inspect my guns in the secure area or back room—in other words, outside of my direct presence?

I don’t believe they can. Does that mean they won’t? Nope. If you haven’t learned by now that people who work for the federal government do whatever the heck they want until slapped even more senseless, then you’ve been inhaling too much Hoppe’s #9. Case in point: I flew through Bend, Oregon last year—an airport accustomed to shooting industry folks toting around all sorts of firearms. At Bend, the security process calls for passengers to declare firearms with the ticket agent, then send it on back via the baggage belt. You’ll be advised to listen for your name over the speakers when TSA is ready to inspect your firearms case. At that point, TSA agents request your keys so they can go back into the secure area, without you, and inspect your firearms case. After inspection, they page you to return your keys.

Why do I believe this practice is illegal? Mainly because the internet says so, and angry mobs are occasionally right about stuff. I also find two direct references in the Code of Federal Regulations.

Title 49: Transportation, Part 1540 – Civil Aviation Security: General Rules, Subpart B – Responsibilities of Passengers and Other Individuals and Persons, 1540.111 (c) (iv) – The container in which it is carried is locked, and only the passenger retains the key or combination.

Title 49: Transportation, Part 1544 – Aircraft Operator Security: Air Carriers and Commercial Operators,  Subpart C – Operations, 1544.203 (f) (iii) The container in which it is carried is locked, and only the individual checking the baggage retains the key or combination;

Federal regulations controlling the passenger and airline acceptance of passenger luggage both clearly specify that the passenger, and only the passenger, retains the key. There are no exceptions stated.

So what to do when flying through an airport like Bend? That depends on how badly you need to make your flight. You can respectfully refuse. And you will miss your flight. Because the feds know they can afford way more lawyers than you. You can bring along some printouts from the Code of Federal Regulations for show and tell. You’ll probably still miss your flight. I suggest respectfully raising the issue and pointing to the regulations. They just might accommodate your request to be present during inspection. Or they might tell you to pound sand, because they have way more lawyers than you.

Can I carry my optics or scopes on the plane?

Generally speaking, yes you can, as long as they are not still attached to your gun, or part of your gun. The regulations are clear that no parts of firearms can be carried on a plane, so make sure everything else that remotely qualifies as a gun part goes in your locked and checked case. Never fear, you can baby that expensive piece of glass in your lap instead of subjecting it to the checked baggage 1,500-meter hop, skip, and toss.

Can I load my ammunition in magazines instead of boxes?

Yes. Well, sort of. Maybe. The intent behind the ammunition packaging is safety, meaning prevention of loose ammunition being torched off by an inadvertent primer strike. The current TSA regulations are kind of vague—they don’t specifically say you can, and don’t specifically say you can’t. Many people travel this way with no problem. Others get griped at by airline personnel and/or TSA agents. Let’s bypass “policy” statements and go straight to the source.

Title 49: Transportation, Part 175 – Carriage By Aircraft, Subpart A – General Information and Regulations, 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 packagings specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition. Ammunition clips and magazines must also be securely boxed.

The Code of Federal Regulations is a bit vague, but as it mentions magazine storage separately, I tend to think the safe bet is to just box up your ammo in original cardboard or plastic containers and not worry about it. I’ve never, ever had a problem that way. You also have to consider the airline—they have some say over whether they’ll accept your packaging as well.

Do I need to use TSA-approved locks on my firearms case?

No! Do not use TSA-approved locks on your firearm case. TSA locks can be opened by an epileptic tree sloth. And the whole idea of locking your firearms case is to prevent anyone, including TSA agents, from obtaining access to your firearms unless you are there to allow it. If you want to lock the bejeepers out of a small case, then place that in a larger piece of standard luggage, which is “protected” by TSA locks, that’s fine. Just don’t count on TSA-approved locks to provide security for your guns—they’re designed to be easily opened.

Can different airlines have different rules?

Yes, this is ‘Murica after all and businesses can make their own policies—within constraints of the law. However, a quick scan (again) of a number of major airlines show that they’ve gotten pretty good at standardizing policies. Most have a 50-pound weight limit for any luggage, including gun cases. Most allow transportation of up to 11 pounds of ammunition, provided it is in factory packaging or other “hard” packaging. Most have no issue at all with passengers checking firearms. Most seem to have no problem having ammunition and firearm in the same locked case, provided the gun is unloaded and ammunition boxed. Some common airline policies are available at the following sites: Delta, US Airways, American Airlines, Frontier, Alaska Airlines, and Southwest.

Go ahead, fly the firearms skies. Some careful reading and a little bit of preparation before you go will help minimize the chances of governmental encounters of the worst kind.

Image by Tom McHale

Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of OutdoorHub. Comments on this article reflect the sole opinions of their writers.
  • kris littledale

    I have to say that my experience in traveling with firearms has been VERY different than described above.

    In the last 4 years I have made over a dozen hunting trips traveling with firearms. I have checked in at the following airports….LaGuardia (NYC), Boston (Ma), White Plains (suburb of NYC), Hartford, (Ct), St. Louis (Mo), Kansas City (Mo), Austin (Tx), San Antonio (Tx), Wichita (Ks) and a few others that I can’t remember at the moment. With the exception of LaGuardia the experience has always been comparatively hassle free.

    My first quibble is with the idea that TSA would ask for my keys or combination to my locks so that they could inspect my firearms outside my presence. Not saying it didn’t happen to the author of the above article, just that in all my flying it has NEVER happened to me. Every time TSA has asked to inspect my firearms it has been in a back room with me present.

    The next problem I have is with the notion that one should not use TSA approved locks. That’s simply crazy. TSA can get into darned near any lock they want. About half the time when I have flown with firearms when opening my gun case on arrival at my destination I have found a little card inside my case stating that TSA has inspected inside my case while en-route. This has been true with combination and padlocks from several different manufacturers. If TSA wants to get into your case while you are en-route then they will. Simple as that.

    The last comment I would like to make is if at all possible do not fly out of LaGuardia in NYC. It was my most harrowing experience of all the flying I have done with firearms. I arrived at the ticket counter and advised the ticket agent that I was flying with a firearm. Filled out the paperwork and she made a call. I expected a TSA agent to arrive to bring me to a back room to inspect my firearm. BUT NO!!!! A police officer of some sort arrived. I’ve forgotten if he was a transit cop, NYPD or what sort of police he was but he was NOT TSA. Right there at the ticketing area with perhaps 100 people in lines to check in the cop instructed me to uncase my rifle and hold it up to the light so he could record the serial number. So here I was in the middle of the ticketing area waving an unloaded rifle around. I was not happy about this! And frankly, some of the people checking in for flights didn’t seem too happy about it either! Happily, there was no incident. All in all, I WILL NOT fly into or out of LaGuardia with a firearm again!

    All in all, the airlines are generally “firearm friendly”. But checking in with a firearm DOES add about 15-30 minutes to the check-in process. So when you fly with a firearm be sure to arrive at the airport a MINIMUM of 90 minutes before schedule departure and two full hours in advance is generally better…especially if you are flying out of a busy airport.

    • Kris on the whole, my experiences have been good also. At almost every other airport, other than Bend, OR described here, the ticket agent calls TSA, who comes to the counter to inspect. Either that or they walk you to a TSA station where the agent does the inspection, again with the traveler present. But, as the article states, this is about the “unusual” circumstances.

      In my over 2 million miles of travel, I have yet to see TSA magically “pick” a non-TSA lock. They either have to cut it off with bolt cutters or they leave the gun case alone. I am aware that good quality locks can be picked, but I have yet to see TSA magically do that. Did they cut your locks off or are you claiming they have a safecracker back there?

      Also, if you look at the federal laws stated in the article, using TSA locks technically violates those regulations. TSA locks have an open mechanism which allows anyone with a special “opener” to gain access. The regs clearly state that only the passenger maintains the key. If thousands of TSA agents have TSA lock openers, then you’re not the only one with a key are you?

      • kris littledale

        Sorry I missed the part in the original article about this being about “unusual situations”.

        As to how TSA has gotten into my gun cases while they were in the possession of the airlines, I really couldn’t begin to say. After all it has happened while I was not present. What I can say with certainty is that about 40-50% of the time when I have traveled with firearms I have found that little slip in the case stating that TSA has inspected inside my gun case. This has happened with “TSA Approved” combination locks and also with 3-4 different brands of key locks. I have a bad habit of misplacing locks between hunting trips 🙁 TSA has never cut a lock of mine, but they don’t seem to have ever had a problem opening any brand of lock I have used. It is entirely possible that every brand of lock I have used was “TSA Approved”. But I can assure you that only the combination locks I have used have been advertised as “TSA Approved”. I am unaware of any brand of lock that claims to NOT be TSA approved. Though I suppose there are some. I just haven’t seen them. Most of the locks I have used have said nothing about “TSA Approval” one way or the other. But one way or the other, TSA does not seem to have ever had a problem unlocking a gun case I have used. As I said, they have done it somewhere in the vicinity of 50% of the times I have traveled with a firearm.

        The first time it happened I was somewhat appalled, but I have gotten used to it. Just one more government intrusion into my privacy.

        I should also mention that I don’t travel with $2,000 guns and $1,000 scopes and the cases I use provide good protection so I just don’t get too worried about TSA opening the case and taking a peek while I am not there.

        On the subject of TSA cutting a lock….while it has never happened to me, I have heard (don’t remember where) that they will do it.

        Long and short, I am convinced that if TSA wants to inspect inside my gun case while the gun is in transit that they are going to do so. And in the end, I’d prefer they opened my case and took a look then locked it back up than cut the locks and then left the unlocked case to the tender mercies of the airline baggage monkeys. Less chance of damage to the gun that way IMO.

  • Hey folks, just to clear up any confusion, TSA locks are designed to so that the TSA can easily open them with a special tool and/or master combination. Think of a TSA lock as one having many thousands of master keys floating around out there. You can get more info on TSA locks here: http://www.tsa.gov/traveler-information/baggage-locks

    According to the letter of the law, using a TSA lock on a gun case is illegal, as you are NOT the only one with a key to that gun case (refer to the thousands of master keys in the above comments.)

    Also, you can correctly assume that TSA locks are far easier for anyone else (outside of the TSA) to open without a key. They’re designed to be easily opened after all. So you’re at additional risk of gun theft by any other person with access to all the back rooms and baggage areas of airports. It happens every day.

    Properly securing your guns from others access is not only your responsibility, it’s the law. Be careful out there.

  • SSGCasper

    Good Article, but you forgot two things:
    1) Don’t fly into or out of the Peoples Republic of NYC as you tossing the dice as to getting through there without at least a scene, if not charges
    2) Give your self an extra hour to 1.5 hours to check in above the normal 30-45 minute pre boarding time check ing.

    As Kris said I normally give myself at least two hours before takeoff to allow plenty of time to check in, hang around while the TSA guys clear your checked bags, and then make it through the TSA Security Health Checkpoint with your free Prostrate exam on the way to the gate. It saves a lot of stress and worry, and keeps your hair from turning grey to soon, often I don’t need the two hours to get checked in and through security, but having the extra time makes life easier and keeps you from missing a flight because of some unforeseen issue.

    I normally don’t leave the cases or bags “unlocked” even though I’ve repeatedly had the counter clerks in Phoenix and elsewhere tell me to for TSA screening “convenience” instead I tell them I’ll wait for TSA to screen the bags with the keys in hand, incase they need to visually inspect the bag/case. Never had an issue when I told them this and always seems to work well.

    Again like Kris, I’ve heard and known folks who have had enroute TSA inspections of their firearms, and one guy I shoot with competitively seems to regularly get his opened or even locks cut by the TSA enroute (happened 3 times in the last 3 years that I had to take him to get new locks once he arrived in town) and he like me uses non-TSA locks. I typically use the largest heaviest lock I can, with a preference for master lock locks, if I can.