Flying with a gun – How-To

I’ve spoken to a lot of folks who avoid flying to matches for fear of dealing with the hassle of flying with guns. Short of taking a private jet, there are some ways to make the process a little easier and safer for you and your equipment. Hit the jump for a video of my preferred solution for handguns, and some additional info on the process of clearing TSA and generally making things flow more easily.

Many thanks to Scott Wallace for the cool airplane wing pic!

First, know the gun laws of the state(s) you are travelling to or through on your trip! You can easily get yourself into serious trouble if you’re travelling to certain areas with a firearm if you’re not careful (airports in and around New York City come to mind).

The keyword for flying safely with a handgun is “nondescript”. Don’t give a baggage handler any reason to think there’s something valuable in that bag. If you’re flying with long guns (unless they break down like an over/under shotgun), try putting some stickers on the case that imply the equipment is something other than firearms. Camouflage is your friend. I don’t personally run the cable in that case through the mags, but you certainly could if you had enough slack. The problem, though, is that you have to find a safe place to store the mag guts and basepads for the flight. I can usually borrow mags if I need to – the gun… not so much.

The flow through baggage check and the TSA is pretty straightforward, as long as you allow plenty of time and follow some basic rules. I try to arrive at the airport a solid two hours before my flight. Generally, you have to go through the regular baggage line (ie, not the express line) because you’ll be taking up some extra time from the attendant. When it’s your turn, give them your flight info and tell them “I need to declare an unloaded firearm”. Don’t say “Hey, toots, I gotta gun!” unless you really like a, uh… close inspection. The attendant will have you fill out a firearms declaration card of some form – every airline is a little bit different in their requirements, here. This is the white card I show in the video. That card should go either inside the hard case, or on top of the hard case (again, it varies by airline, attendant, and TSA location) but NEVER on the outside of your luggage. It effectively becomes a “STEAL ME” tag on the outside, and is against TSA policy (and possibly the law). If the airline attendant insists on putting it on the outside of your luggage, politely request a supervisor and/or TSA agent to consult on the matter. I’ve not yet run into this issue, though.

The airline has a right to request that you demonstrate the gun is unloaded, and to verify that the case is locked, etc. I’ve had them ask a couple of times to check that the gun is unloaded, but it’s honestly pretty rare. If they do, be as discrete as possible (realizing that you’re at the ticket counter … with sheep all around). This is another advantage to the system I describe in the post – you can’t really get the gun all the way out easily, but you can point out the cable to the attendant. It also prevents them from grabbing it and waving it around while they try to figure out if it’s loaded or not (yep, that’s happened to folks, too… again, rare, thankfully). Then you get everything closed back up, and move on to the next step – TSA inspection.

I’ve travelled with a gun through a number of airports, and every single one follows a different process for dealing with getting your bag to the TSA and having TSA inspect it. At some airports, they have you walk the bag to the TSA yourself. At others, they get one of the local security folks to walk it over with you in tow. Still at others, they just send the bag back and ask you to wait. In Spokane, they called TSA, and the TSA agent came down to the ticket counter personally. Be prepared for just about anything. TSA may or may not inspect your bag, and you may or may not be allowed to watch while they do it. I’d say it’s most common for them to search it, but very uncommon for them to do so where you cannot watch – but, yes, I’ve had my bag searched without me being present, and had to turn over a key to the TSA agent to do so.

Be prepared for everything in your bag to come out, and realize that TSA won’t allow you to touch anything in the bag to re-pack items, etc. So, pack the bag with your gun in it relatively simply. And, if you’re easily embarrassed, maybe pack your undies in another bag.

If they send your bag back to TSA without you, make sure your cell phone is turned on and is somewhere where you can hear it, in case TSA calls you. They won’t put your bag on the plane if they need to inspect it and you don’t allow them into the case! They won’t put an unlocked gun case on the plane, either, so they won’t cut your locks off to inspect things inside your gun case. Thus the contact info on the outside of my gun case. Also realize that while it may a seem a reasonable amount of time has passed, TSA may take quite a while to get to your bag, depending on how busy the airport is at that time you’re travelling. I’ve had it take literally an hour and a half, before, and the airline was starting to prepare our flight for boarding when I got a call from TSA and had to run my key back to them (luckily, they met me inside security). Thankfully, that scenario is also extremely rare, but it can happen. Stay calm and polite, and do what needs to get done so you can get to the other end of your trip successfully.

Most airlines limit your ammunition to about 11 pounds, though some vary. Make sure you know the parameters ahead of time, if you’re not shipping your ammo ahead. If you’re traveling with another person, that person can usually also take 11 pounds of ammo. If you can’t ship ahead, sometimes your spouse and significant other can play “bullet mule” (but don’t tell them I said that!).

In the end, flying with a checked gun is relatively painless, as long as you’re prepared for it. Keep things low key and discrete, and allow enough time, and chances are that your experiences will be pretty positive with it. I’d rather deal with a little inconvenience than simply not fly to matches, nor take my carry gun with me (when travelling to states that allow it).

About the author


USPSA Grand Master, NRA Instructor, http://re-gun.com/about/

Permanent link to this article: http://re-gun.com/2011/04/flying-with-a-gun-how-to/


2 pings

  1. Tim says:

    I saw someone reference your video


    1. DaveRe says:

      Thanks, Tim – they contacted me ahead of time about it :-)

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