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You may be surprised to learn that transporting firearms is relatively simple, even when flying.

Of course you can't carry them into the cabin with you, but checking them in your luggage is relatively straightforward.

 
 
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Traveling and Flying with Firearms

Surprisingly easy and straightforward but only if you know and plan for the issues involved
 

You'll need to lock your pistol(s) into a hard sided and lockable secure case when transporting them by air.

Part of a series on the Front Sight Firearms Training Institute; what it does, how it does it, and its relevance for you.  Please click the links on the right hand side for other parts of the series.

 

 

Most people instinctively perceive the process of traveling with their weapons as being fraught with difficulties and complications.

Happily, that is not the case.  If you're driving yourself, basically all you need to do is to keep your weapons unloaded and locked in a case in the trunk of the vehicle and that should meet most states' requirements.  And if traveling by air, a similar sort of rule applies - check them as luggage, declare them at the airport, and pack them in secure containers.

Read on for more details below.  But two cautionary notes.  First, I'm not an attorney and haven't reviewed the legislation in all 50 states for what you can and can't do.  Secondly, the information below may change between when I write it and when you read it, so use this as a guide, but when you know the exact parameters of what you want to do, check and confirm with the airlines and state agencies if you have any concerns.

Firearms in Your Car

If you're traveling with firearms in your car, you should already know the requirements of your local state.

But other states may have different requirements, and you should consider checking out what they are before embarking on a multi-state road trip.  You should search for their Attorney General's website and can probably find information on the state's firearms requirements there.

However, as a general rule, if you are just necessarily passing through a state en route to another state, rather than stopping there as a destination, there are some federal restrictions on how onerous the state you are traveling through can be, and you might find you have more rights as someone passing through than local people do (seems strange, but true).

As a general rule, if you keep your weapons unloaded in a hard sided locked suitcase in the car's trunk, and if you keep magazines and ammunition in a different container, then the chances are you'll be in full compliance with all states requirements.

If you have a concealed weapons permit which is recognized by the state you are traveling through, then you may be able to have loaded weapons in the passenger compartment too.

Federal Law Overrules State Laws

Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 44, paragraph 926A is the applicable law which gives you rights of transportation of firearms that in some states (such as New York) overrule and increase the rights you'd have under state law.

It reads

Notwithstanding any other provision of any law or any rule or regulation of a State or any political subdivision thereof, any person who is not otherwise prohibited by this chapter from transporting, shipping, or receiving a firearm shall be entitled to transport a firearm for any lawful purpose from any place where he may lawfully possess and carry such firearm to any other place where he may lawfully possess and carry such firearm if, during such transportation the firearm is unloaded, and neither the firearm nor any ammunition being transported is readily accessible or is directly accessible from the passenger compartment of such transporting vehicle: Provided, That in the case of a vehicle without a compartment separate from the driver’s compartment the firearm or ammunition shall be contained in a locked container other than the glove compartment or console.

Flying with Firearms

When flying with firearms, you need to satisfy two sets of requirements.  The first are those imposed on you by the airline you have chosen to fly, and the second are those imposed on you by the TSA.

Let's talk about the TSA first.

TSA Requirements

The TSA actually have simple and easy to comply with requirements.  They are listed on this page of their website.

Some of their comments/requirements deserve interpretation and explanation.

As far as most airlines are concerned, you can travel with more than one firearm - but at least one airline (Spirit) limits you to only one.  In all cases, the most restrictive policy applies - the airlines don't have to be as 'generous' as the TSA is.

Choosing a case for your weapon(s)

These days it seems advisable to place your weapon(s) in hard sided cases that have at least two padlocks (rather than just one) on them.  Note the TSA's comment about 'cases that can be pulled open with little effort' - while the concept of 'little effort' is a bit nebulous, the underlying issue is clear.  If you have a case that you can open the snaps on, slide the padlock to one side, and then pry the other side open, reach in, and pull the weapon out, it won't be accepted.  You don't need a 100% 'Fort Knox' secure container, but it must be reasonably secure.

I've had this confirmed by a TSA officer.  I asked him about this issue while he was inspecting my own (double locked) pistol case.  He barely glanced at it after noticing the two padlocks, and when I asked if it was now official policy that cases should have two locks, he said it wasn't, but if there were only one lock, he'd try twisting and bending the case to see if he could pry a pistol out of it.  I'm sure none of us want the TSA twisting and prying at our gun cases, whether they should be success or unsuccessful!

Third, we have heard of some TSA officers rejecting the officially approved TSA padlocks as being too flimsy.  A TSA approved padlock is designed to lock a suitcase, but some TSA officers consider them insufficient to lock a firearms case.

Upgrade to slightly bigger/better locks for your gun cases, just in case.  The TSA do not require you to use the TSA approved locks that they can themselves unlock.

We recommend combination locks rather than padlocks.  That way if the TSA need to open the case and you are not present, when they page you in another part of the airport, you can simply tell them the combination rather than have to go somewhere - perhaps on the other side of security - to give them a key, and then wait until you can retrieve it again.

A word of warning.  If your padlocks are oversized with large hasps, this will give more slack for the carry case to be partially opened.  I discovered, to my horror, that after locking both sides of my officially approved custom designed carry case, I could then easily pry the front of the case open, reach inside, and pull out the pistol inside.

You should consider getting the smallest size padlock possible so there is less space in the hasp/loop for this to occur, and/or packing the spare space with some washers.

Ammunition

Note the TSA allows you to travel with loaded magazines, but requires them to have their open ends covered by something (such as a pouch or belt holder) so the bullets can't be knocked out.  Not all airlines allow you to travel with loaded magazines however (are bullets more dangerous in a metal magazine than in a cardboard packet?).

We should point out that generally an airline will not look inside your firearms case, so if you, ahem, forget that you have rounds in a magazine, the key thing is to comply with the TSA requirement, because they may indeed inspect the contents of your case carefully.

The TSA spell out that they will accept ammunition packaged in cardboard boxes, whereas airlines sometimes refer to 'crush-proof containers' which may or may not extend to cardboard boxes - if you can point out to the airline that the TSA requirement is for a cardboard box, that might help if you are having a problem.

We are not certain how the TSA would respond to ammunition in a bulk box (such as, for example, a 100 round box of Winchester ammo that simply has the 100 rounds all lying loose in the box).  Although it seems like a solid secure 'brick' of ammo from the outside, if they were to open the cardboard box they'd probably be horrified to see 100 rounds lying loose and unprotected.

Furthermore, if you have half a box of ammo loose, it will rattle and shake and definitely not be accepted.

We accordingly recommend against this type of ammo package.

We always travel with a couple of 50 round re-usable plastic ammo boxes with individual cells for each round so if you end up with a partial box of unfired loose ammo (from eg a bulk 100 round box) you can carry them home in the plastic ammo containers.

Check in Procedure

At some airports, you'll hand-carry your suitcase with the firearms to a special TSA inspection point and wait while the TSA officer inspects things more or less in your presence.  At other airports, your suitcase just seems to go into the standard baggage handling procedure, and generally you wait somewhere close to the checkin counter for 10 - 15 minutes; then if no-one has called you over, you can continue going through security and waiting for your flight.

In such a case, where you've heard nothing either positive or negative, it is probably a good idea to get to your boarding area and wait around there just in case the TSA are slow processing bags and 'make a reasonable attempt to contact you' but unsuccessfully.

So you should allow 20 minutes for the extra time it takes for this process and arrive that much earlier at the airport.

We suggest you print out a copy of the TSA regulations and carry them with you in case of any issues arising, either with the airline or the TSA.  If you have a problem with an airline being more restrictive than the TSA, you just know the airline will try and blame the TSA for what they are doing, so you can show them the TSA regulations and ask they call a TSA supervisor to get a ruling on if the TSA will allow you to transport whatever it is you have or not.

Airline Requirements

Once upon a time, many years ago, airlines would add special tags to the outside of bags that contained firearms.  In theory this meant the bags were tracked more carefully, and were therefore less likely to go missing; and for a while there was an urban legend that if you wanted to be sure your bag would be well cared for and not lost or stolen, the best thing to do was to travel with a firearm.

Well, like most urban legends, that turned out not to be true, and possibly the real incidence of lost/stolen bags was even greater for bags with firearm tags on them, because the airlines have now changed their procedures and they generally prefer firearms to be in unmarked normal bags that don't hint at their contents.

This is of course not really possible with long guns (rifles and shotguns) but for pistols, the best procedure is to have your locked pistol case inside a regular suitcase.

Here are some general considerations for transporting firearms by an airline.

First, you generally need to be at least 18 to do this, except in the case of Hawaiian Airlines which claims that an unspecified law makes it illegal for firearms to be transported by people under the age of 21.

Let's all roll our eyes at how Hawaiian Airlines alone has uniquely interpreted the law to forbid people under the age of 21 to transport firearms.  But this is a good warning and example of how airlines will come up with all manner of strange interpretations of simple things, and then hide behind a generic claim of 'it is against the law' without ever citing the exact law.

For this reason, you need to be very wary of all aspects of interacting with the airlines when traveling with firearms, for fear of encountering a rabid anti-gunner at the front counter who will arbitrarily make things difficult for you.

If you are traveling internationally, expect an entire new layer of complexity and uncertainty.  Some airlines will require you to obtain some type of vaguely unspecified official approval from the government of the country you are traveling to authorizing you to bring weapons into their country.

Some airlines limit the number of firearms you can take with you (notably Spirit who only allows one per passenger), and all airlines limit the weight of ammunition you can carry - typically 5 kg/ 11 lbs, with Alaska Airlines winning a gold star for allowing up to 50 lbs of ammunition domestically, and Virgin America earning a 'brown' star for only allowing 10 lbs.

By way of indication, a box of 50 rounds of 9mm ammunition weighs about 1 lb 6 oz.  In other words, you can carry 9 3/4 boxes of 9mm ammunition in an 11 lb allowance, ie just under 500 rounds.  Of course, larger size rounds are heavier and so you can bring fewer.

Talking about larger size rounds, some airlines limit the maximum caliber of ammunition you can travel with.  Is one round of .50 caliber ammunition more dangerous than 11 lbs of .22 ammunition?  Some airlines think so.

Some airlines require the ammunition to be packed separately, others allow it in the same suitcase as the firearms.

Are you getting confused yet?  Every airline is a little different, and their various rules are generally so poorly written as to leave considerable ambiguity and leeway by the check-in staff as to how they are interpreted.

So be friendly, polite, matter-of-fact and efficient.  Better still, be prepared.  Get an airline to pre-authorize your travel.

We suggest you do not lock your firearms into their carry box prior to arriving at the airport, because you will have to open the box at the counter and place a signed declaration on an airline form stating the weapons are unloaded.  Instead, lock it after you've put the form inside the case.

We've also heard reports that some airlines require the outer suitcase that you place the weapons case inside to be padlocked.  In such a case, you must of course use a TSA approved padlock on the outside suitcase.

Table of Airline Firearm Policies and Links to Airline Website Explanations

Here's a table that gives you a summary of each airline's firearms and ammunition policies, and a link to the page on their website with their official policy statement.  Read on for how best to use this information, and how best to ensure you travel with no problems.

For what it is worth, everyone I have spoken to who has traveled with firearms and ammunition has reported that everything has gone smoothly for them.  So if you are well prepared and in general compliance with the airline requirements, you should have no problems, too.

How to use this table and how to ensure no problems with an airline accepting your firearms when traveling

Check the summary information for the airline you are considering flying, then click the link to the exact page on their website that has their current exact fully detailed rules/regulations/requirements.

If there is any doubt in your mind, follow up with a call to the airline's reservation office and ask careful clear questions, and be sure to get the agent's name, location, and 'agent sign' (identifier) and keep a note of that.

If you're not comfortable with their answers, call back a second time and ask whoever answers the phone the same questions.

If/when you have a booking, if you have any concerns, call and get an agent to put an OSI comment in your PNR record 'Authorized to check two firearms and up to 500 rounds of 9mm ammunition weighing less than 11lbs for travel from Los Angeles to Denver' (or whatever else applies) and ask them to send you a copy of your record printed out with the OSI comments shown.  Keep that with you when checking in.

If the link to the airline website is broken in this table, go to the home page and look for a search box, or failing that, a link to an FAQ section which will probably have a search box on that page.  Search for the keyword 'firearms' (without the quotes of course) and that should quickly get you to the information you need.

This table was last updated on 10 September, 2010.  Please advise of any errors or changes.

Airline

Firearms

Ammunition

AirTran

Allowed.

Repeats TSA requirements.  Adds some negative comments about complying with local laws which may add extra complications, even though you're probably in compliance.

Prohibits 8 ga shotgun shells and .50 caliber rifle ammo.

Requires ammunition to be packed in baggage separate from the firearm.

Up to 11 lbs maximum.

Alaska

Allowed.

'All parts of the firearm must be packed in the same container as the firearm itself' - whatever that means.

'Projectile must be no larger than 11/16th of an inch in diameter' - about the size of a dime, and exactly 0.6875".  Note that a 12 gauge shell is slightly larger - 0.729" bore diameter, very slightly less for the shell.

Up to 50 lbs domestically, 11 lbs internationally.

American

Maximum of three rifles or five pistols.

Up to 11 lbs.

Continental

'One item' containing up to five firearms.

Up to 11 lbs.

Delta

No more than four rifles, two shotguns and five pistols.

They charge extra if you have more than two rifles in a case.

Up to 11 lbs.

Frontier

Don't allow any firearms on any international flights.

Otherwise allowed.

Allow loaded ammunition clips (but note the TSA restriction above).

No black powder or percussion caps.

Up to 11 lbs.

Hawaiian

Not more than two rifles OR two shotguns OR not more than five pistols.

Says 'per state and federal laws it is illegal for a person under the age of 21 to carry firearms'.

Up to 11 lbs for rifles or shotguns.  Ambiguous wording implies they won't accept ammunition for pistols at all.

JetBlue

Does not allow international carriage of firearms (including to PR) unless pre-authorized by the foreign government.

Sells pistol cases for $35 at checkin counters (I wonder if all airports have a supply - would hate to arrive at an airport to discover they'd sold out).

Defines 'one item of shooting equipment' as being two rifles, two shotguns, or four pistols.  Unclear if you can take more than 'one item'.

Up to 11 lbs.

Midwest

Allowed.

Repeats TSA requirements.

Refers to 'small arms ammunition' - does that mean shotgun shells and rifle bullets are okay too?

Up to 11 lbs maximum.

Southwest

Allows multiple firearms (doesn't say how many).

Doesn't allow 'loose loaded magazines'.

Doesn't allow gunpowder, primers or percussion caps.

Allows 'small arms ammunition' - perhaps not rifle/shotgun?

Up to 11 lbs gross weight of ammunition and container maximum.  Does this mean the boxes the ammo is in, or does it also extend to the case the boxes are in?

Spirit (search for keyword 'firearms')

One one checked firearm per passenger.

Not permitted to international destinations.

Up to 11 lbs per person.

United

Very brief information with no apparent restrictions on quantity, etc.

Up to 11 lbs per person.

US Airways

No limit to the number of firearms transported, up to 50 lbs per bag.

International travel requires 'all required import documentation'.

Up to 11 lbs per person.

Virgin America

Confusing information defines one item of shooting equipment as being two rifles, two shotguns, or four pistols, but doesn't then limit how many 'items' one can travel with.

Not allowed on flights to Mexico.

Must be kept separate from the firearm - does that mean in the same suitcase or a different one?

Up to 10 lbs per person.

 

Note :  See also our information on airline checked baggage allowances and fees for more information on airline luggage policies in general.

Part of a multi-part series

Please click the links at the top right of this page to read through other parts of this extensive series on Front Sight and the training they offer.

 

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Originally published 11 Sep 2010, last update 15 Oct 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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