Flying with Guns

The Neal Knox Report  

From the Firearms Coalition

Packing For Unfriendly Skies       

 By Neal Knox (updated 05/08 by Jeff Knox)


      WASHINGTON, D.C. (Dec. 10, 2004) – Flying with a firearm in your checked baggage is more complicated than it used to be, but it’s usually not the nightmare some think. 

       The important thing to remember is that making a mistake involving a firearm in an airport can result in serious consequences – and it doesn’t have to be you that makes the mistake.

       There are plenty of people working for airlines and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) who, whether through fear, malice or simple ignorance, can make traveling with a gun harder than it should be.  If one of them makes a “mistake” it could be you that pays the price.

       Simply notifying a ticket agent that there is an unloaded firearm in your bag – as you are required by law to do – can result in pandemonium.  I recall a case several years ago where a man declared a legal shotgun at Washington National Airport and found himself surrounded by a SWAT team.  Not a comfortable position.

        Not too long ago it was fairly common for those traveling with handguns in checked baggage to adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy.  They would simply pack their guns in their suitcase and keep quiet about it.

        Don’t try that today!  As of 2004, TSA checks every single bag that goes onto any commercial airliner in this country using a variety of methods from x-ray to random full-open bag inspections.  A gun in a bag will almost certainly be detected and an undeclared firearm in your luggage is a felony offence.  That can cost you not only the loss of that gun but every gun you own and the right to ever own another.

       If you fly with a firearm, ALWAYS declare it with the airline!

       Federal law requires that firearms be unloaded and contained in a locked, hard-sided case.  TSA rules require that the owner have a key and be present in case they want to inspect the contents.  If the owner is not present, the airline must locate him, and bring him to the TSA check-station to provide the key and be present during screening.  If the owner cannot be located in a timely manner, (the TSA guy on duty defines “timely”), the case might be opened regardless, or kept off of the plane.

       Finding you to get the key and witness the inspection could easily mean a missed flight.  Opening the bag without you – and your key – can mean even bigger problems.

       TSA is quite proficient at breaking locks.  They are not supposed to break into a gun case, but “supposed to” is not always followed.  If TSA breaks your locks, your case can’t go on the plane. 

       Federal law requires that firearms be in a locked case.  If the lock is broken, the case can’t fly unless you have a spare lock or extra hard-sided, locking case.

       Whether that dream chukar hunt in Spain or your first time (or 50th) competing at Camp Perry, arriving without your gun can really ruin your trip — not to mention the challenge of trying to find and recover your firearm(s).

       Flying with guns generally isn’t a nightmare though, if you prepare and follow a few simple guidelines:

       1.  First, must you take a gun?  Might it make more sense to rent or borrow one?

      2.  Arrive early and know the rules – for your airline and your airport/TSA – and make sure that you and they follow them.  Your best bet is to get it in writing in advance and have a copy with you when you travel.  TSA rules are subject to change and airlines can set their own rules which can be more stringent than the TSA rules.  Visit and check your airline’s web site for their firearms policy.

      3. Stay close to your bag (you should be present while TSA clears it so don’t just let the airline throw it on the conveyor belt) and once you’ve left it, stay close to the airline’s employees so they can easily find you.  Writing your cell phone number on the declaration form is a good idea too.

      4. The gun must be in a locked, hard sided case and ammunition must be in an enclosed container designed for ammunition storage such as the original packaging, a plastic ammo box, or even magazines, but only if they are enclosed in a pouch.  The ammo container may be inside the hard sided case with the gun, and that case may be stowed inside a larger suitcase.

      5. Be sure your case has a hasp and padlock type system.  A padlock can be cut and replaced, a big screwdriver and a frustrated TSA screener can make a mess of locked snap-latches.  If your case has snap latches with combination locks, set the combinations to all zeros.  TSA screeners are trained to test for zeros before forcing a latch.

      6. Use small, inexpensive locks and consider storing an extra lock, un-locked, inside the case with the gun.  That way, if TSA does cut the locks, they have a replacement available so the case can fly.  You can also use TSA “pass locks” which have a special pass key TSA can use to open them.  Using such locks on a gun case might be a technical violation of the rule that “only you should have a key” to your gun case, but I have never heard of anyone ever making an issue of this.

      7. Never ever try to circumvent the rules or argue with an idiot – especially an idiot sporting the full faith and backing of the largest bureaucracy in the United States.

       There is no such thing as a simple problem with a gun in an airport. 

       Follow the rules.  Do everything right.  And if they mess it up… apologize to the nice man and be prepared with plan “B”. 


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