Happy New Year to everyone! This is one of the heaviest travel seasons of the year, and I want to take the opportunity to clear up some things regarding traveling with handguns, particularly when flying. I receive a ton of e-mail every month, and it seems that this topic comes up quite frequently. Well, as luck—and I do mean luck—would have it, I recently had an experience (or should I say that I didn’t have an experience) that all of us can learn from. I’ve become quite accustomed to airport, airline, and TSA regulations when it comes to flying with my guns. I’d like to clear a few things up, and then relate what could have been a very scary experience. Let me explain:
…there is absolutely nothing to worry about when your travel plans involve a flight. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have read some posting somewhere from someone asking about packing heat on board an aircraft. Let’s start there; you can’t pack heat on board an aircraft.
First of all, there is absolutely nothing to worry about when your travel plans involve a flight. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have read some posting somewhere from someone asking about packing heat on board an aircraft. Let’s start there; you can’t pack heat on board an aircraft. You can however, pack your weapon or weapons, as well as ammunition, inside your checked luggage. How many times have you seen some news story about the individual who was arrested at the security checkpoint with a loaded gun in their bag or briefcase?
It happens all the time. I used to think, “What a dumb ass. How could anyone be so stupid as to forget they had a gun in their briefcase and not remember it until they went through airport security?” I’ll get back to that in a minute.
First, some things to know when you are traveling by air with a handgun and ammunition: It is NOT required that you arrive at the airport an extra two hours early! Don’t believe what you read from all of these folks who tell you to wake up with the roosters and arrive at 0800 for a noon flight. Not necessary. You do want to give yourself an extra few minutes to account for the possibility that the person behind the counter may not be familiar with their own policy or TSA requirements, but the process is a simple one, and most employees are aware of the procedure.
Here are the things you need to know. First, make sure you have a “hard-sided”, locked container to place your gun in. In many cases, you can use the container that the gun came in when you bought it. Smith and Wesson, for example, sells guns in a plastic container that is designed to be locked. This works just fine. I do however, recommend the Center-of-Mass (www.center-of-mass.com) travel safes, and in fact, I have two of them for large or small guns, depending on my flavor of the day. These things are the greatest! I take the cable that comes with the safe and place it around one of the supports inside the suitcase and not only does my gun reside locked in the container but the entire safe itself is securely fastened to the suitcase.
…under TSA regulations your ammunition can ride inside the same luggage as your firearm. According to TSA, “You must securely pack any ammunition in fiber (such as cardboard), wood or metal boxes or other packaging that is specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition.”
Second, the suitcase itself must also be locked. Make sure you have a suitcase that has the ability to place a small lock through the zippers to keep the bag secure and while you’re at it, make sure to purchase the small TSA locks available at most pharmacy stores. They will have the little TSA logos on them and in the event that security needs to get into your bag, TSA will already have a key; all the more reason to have the Center of Mass safe securely fastened to the suitcase!
Third, under TSA regulations your ammunition can ride inside the same luggage as your firearm. According to TSA, “You must securely pack any ammunition in fiber (such as cardboard), wood or metal boxes or other packaging that is specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition.” I leave the ammunition in its factory container.
Now for the kicker: the airline I happen to fly most frequently, Air Tran, is the only airline I am aware of that does not follow TSA regulations as far as ammunition is concerned. Believe me, I have shown them TSA regulations in print and their policy goes a step further. They require that all ammunition travel in a second bag altogether. I have simply accepted the fact that they will not allow the ammo in the same bag, and I now keep a second box of ammo at my destination. If I happen not to be flying to that particular location, I carry a second checked bag—pain in the tail, but it’s the rules.
Now to the ticket counter. After you arrive at the airline ticket counter, simply tell the agent how many bags you have to check and that you are traveling with a firearm in this particular bag. At this point, I bend down and unlock the bag showing the agent the hard-sided container (which I have placed on top of my belongings) and unlock it in their presence. You will then be asked to sign the orange declaration tag that the gun is unloaded, and you will then place it inside the luggage. The bag itself will then be re-locked. Depending on the airport and or the airline, you will then either be escorted, or told where to take the bag for its TSA screening. After the bag is screened, you will then be on your way.
This entire process only takes the extra time it takes to open the bag and show the firearm, sign the form, and walk it to TSA for screening. I fly out of the busiest airport in the world (Atlanta) and the process is only about an extra ten minutes. I have never had any problems. And if you follow those rules, neither will you!
I could have been arrested, one of those folks you read about in your local paper or see on the local evening news and think, “What an idiot”.
Now for my story: I had a meeting in Sarasota, Florida and another meeting the next day in Jacksonville, Florida. I flew from Atlanta to Sarasota, rented a car, drove to Jacksonville and returned to Atlanta the following day via the JAX airport. I flew with two firearms in one checked bag and ammo in the second (Air Tran.) Upon my return home, I emptied the suitcase and went about my business for the next six days until I was packing for a subsequent trip to Tampa the following week.
This time I was driving. I reached for my trusty travel suitcase and when I picked it up it was upside down. That’s when I heard the tink, tink, tink. Upon placing the case right side up, it just fell out; a 9mm round of Winchester RA9T. Just like that. Dropped right onto the floor. Holy Shit! I had just been through the Atlanta and Jacksonville airports and used that particular bag as a carry on. Where in the hell did that live round come from? I have no idea. In fact, I have no idea how many times I may have carried that bag with that round in it.
Upon further examination, I found that it had been tucked up against the side of the bag and the plastic flap that holds the retractable carry arms supports inside the bag. Now I know good and well that I didn’t open that suitcase and intentionally place a round in it so it only stands to reason that it had traveled with me for quite some time. I could have been arrested, one of those folks you read about in your local paper or see on the local evening news and think, “What an idiot”. Fortunately I wasn’t. I am very thorough when I pack to travel, as I carry a gun in my computer bag on occasion and I turn that thing upside down before I fly. I have absolutely no idea how that round ended up in that bag or just how long it may have been there.
I can laugh about it now but what really bothers me is: how did it go unnoticed by security screening at the busiest airport in the world, and in Jacksonville as well? Lord knows how many other airports? Although I’m counting my lucky stars, it makes me wonder what else gets through.
[ Mark is the Vice President of DTI, Inc. based in Atlanta, Ga. He is a member of the Professional Outdoor Media Association (POMA) and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF). He is a NRA certified instructor in three disciplines and a second amendment activist in his hometown. He encourages readers to contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org ]