Seeing the USA While Legally Armed

For many legally armed citizens, traveling with guns is a fact of life.

Back in my cop days, traveling with at least one pistol was not really a problem, except in New York City. NYC was (and remains) notoriously unfriendly to anyone, even LEOs from other jurisdictions, carrying in their jurisdiction. While seldom covered by statute, many police agencies back then granted professional courtesy to police officers carrying concealed while traveling. They knew that the same courtesy would likely be extended to them when they traveled.

Not so today. Some departments discourage even their own officers from carrying off-duty in their own bailiwicks, let alone other jurisdictions. However, life is considerably better for the legally armed civilian now than it was for me after I hung up my blue suit. Now, my Nevada, Florida and Utah permits make me legal to carry concealed in 35 states.

When in doubt, check the USCCA’s Reciprocity Map and State Gun Laws pages or their Federal Laws pages.

Firearms Owner’s Protection Act of 1986 (FOPA)

FOPA protects those who are legally transporting firearms by auto or air for lawful purposes from state and local restrictions which would otherwise prohibit passage, as long as the firearms are transported in compliance with local and federal laws and regulations, and as long as the firearms are legal at both ends of the journey.

OPA protects firearms owners traveling through gun-unfriendly jurisdictions; it does not protect those traveling to those places. If your trip will include an overnight stay within the problem territory, FOPA’s protections do not apply.

Important Note: Some jurisdictions treat FOPA as an affirmative defense that may only be raised after an arrest. Translated, this means that some jurisdictions may arrest you for the gun in spite of FOPA, then you and your lawyer get to argue about it in court and hope the judge or jury decides to follow the law. Sadly, sometimes they don’t. A case in point is the now dated New Jersey incident involving someone moving from out of state into New Jersey. New York is also infamous for making felony arrests of people traveling by air with guns in checked luggage who end up with an unscheduled layover in New York due to the airline changing their routing after departure. I’m not making this up! I have spoken personally with retired cops who have made just such arrests in New York when the unsuspecting passenger claimed his luggage to make his unscheduled connecting flight inside New York.

Traveling Abroad with a Firearm

Foreign countries are also red flag areas. Think your CCW makes you good in Canada or Mexico? It doesn’t. Run afoul of gun laws in another country and you are likely in for the hassle of your life! This makes the next section all the more important.

Know the law where you plan to visit. When I make domestic travel plans, I check the gun laws where I intend to go. Again, the best source of information is the USCCA’s Concealed Carry Reciprocity & Gun Law Map, which is an excellent resource. The map site features state-by-state reciprocity information — so I know where I’m still legal to carry concealed, current carry restrictions where I’m going, things like police notification requirements, places where carry is prohibited, whether open carry is allowed, self-defense laws, etc. You need to know these things if you intend to carry or transport guns there. When in doubt, contact the Attorney General’s office of the states you will visit for current laws. If this seems like a lot of trouble, it is. Like most things in life, you are responsible for doing your own due diligence.

Gun Laws Change Quickly

Another case in point: While writing this article, I checked gun law websites to get an accurate count of the states I’m legal in. Several sites told me 36 states; one told me 35. On closer examination, New Mexico had stopped recognizing my Utah permit two days earlier, and three web sites had not updated their files. Had I gone to New Mexico and carried there, and had I not also had a Florida permit which NM still recognizes, I could have been risking my gun rights.

The lesson here is: You are responsible for knowing and obeying the law. Do what you need to do to get it right. I also suggest printing out and carrying with you the firearms laws and regulations of the jurisdictions you will be visiting. There are states, like Oregon and Illinois — plus the District of Columbia — that don’t honor any other permits. Several states, such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and others, limit the right to carry to varying degrees.

Traveling with a Gun in Your Car

Having gotten the latest legal information, I next decide my route. If a state I intend to visit or pass through does not honor my permits, I try not to visit that state. If I absolutely must, I make sure to find out the current gun laws for that jurisdiction and abide by them scrupulously. If it’s New York state or city, I try really hard to avoid it! (See above.) If I must go to New York, I leave my gun at home, or someplace outside of New York where it’s legal to do so and where I can retrieve it when leaving that gun-hostile jurisdiction.

Under FOPA, if you’re not legal to carry in a particular jurisdiction, the firearms must be unloaded, not in the passenger compartment of the vehicle, not accessible to the driver or passengers and locked up, — either in your luggage or in separate locked containers. If your vehicle doesn’t have a separate lockable trunk, then the firearms must be in a locked container other than the console or glove compartment.

Ammunition must also be locked up in another separate container also in the luggage compartment or otherwise unavailable to occupants of the vehicle. If you are traveling through states that allow loaded guns in the passenger compartment, great! Just remember, when crossing jurisdictional lines, to do whatever is required to comply with the laws of the next jurisdiction.

Otherwise, play it safe and leave your gun locked in the trunk. I know it’s a pain, and the weapon isn’t available if you need it. I won’t jeopardize my ability to carry legally, so I make the prudent choice when I drive.

Concealed Carry on a Train

Traveling by Amtrak with firearms in checked luggage has been legal since December, 2010. The procedure is similar to air travel — with some important differences. You may only transport firearms on a train in checked baggage; firearms must be unloaded and in hard-sided locked containers Firearms are only allowed on trains that provide checked baggage service. Amtrak also requires 24 hours advance notice. Check with them for specific current details when you give them their 24-hour notice, and try to get it in writing. If you forget and leave a pistol in a carry-on bag, it IS a big deal.

Transporting a Firearm by Air

If it’s legal for you to possess the firearm on both ends of your travel; the guns are unloaded and locked up in accordance with TSA and airline rules; and they’re transported as checked luggage in the belly of the aircraft, you’re good to go. The actual process will be similar to mine (described below), although your experience may vary somewhat by airline.

As a precaution before flying, check the USCCA Domestic Commercial Air Travel webpage — which has information as well as links to the TSA and most major U.S. airlines — for current firearms transportation rules (including fees for transporting firearms in checked luggage, as some airlines have begun to charge), and print them out to take with you when traveling. They may come in handy if you encounter an airline clerk who is unfamiliar with the pertinent rules.

My Air Transport Method

I pack my pistols in a plastic, hard-sided pistol case (available at most Wal-Marts, hardware stores and gun shows for $10-$20). If you want to throw in your pocket knife and Spyderco folder, that’s usually okay (check the knife laws in your destination!). The pistols are unloaded and the magazines are empty. The pistol box is locked with a padlock, to which only I have the combination or key. TSA rules are quite specific about this, so don’t use a TSA lock.

My carry ammo is packed in a small, plastic caliber-specific ammo box that I tape closed, and both pistol and ammo boxes are packed in my soft-sided luggage, which can be locked with TSA locks. Hard-sided luggage works, too, and both are acceptable under TSA and airline rules.

Happy Trails!

It’s not constitutional carry, but thanks to the dedication and hard work of gun rights advocates and some sensible legislators, traveling with guns in the U.S. is the next best thing. Do your homework, know and follow the laws and procedures you must abide by, and travel safe!

DISCLOSURE: I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. This article contains legal information, not legal advice. While the information presented here is believed to be accurate, it cannot and should not substitute for your own due diligence in researching the laws you are expected to obey when traveling with firearms.

*Updated 7/1/2019

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