I carry my handgun everywhere I legally can, and I often travel by air commercially for work. This piques people’s attention.
“I thought you’re not allowed to take a gun onto a plane?”
True, it is against TSA regulations to carry a weapon onto a plane. However, with careful adherence to TSA regulations, you can place an unloaded firearm in your checked luggage.
Right off the top, you can find complete TSA regulations at tsa.gov/travel/transporting-firearms-and-ammunition. I encourage you to read it thoroughly; no fair treating it like one of those “terms and conditions” windows that most of us accept without reading a single word. Study it and know what it says. I keep a printed copy in my gun case for reference. Atop the TSA rules, you also need to review any specific instructions provided by the airline you intend to fly.
Ah, the gun case: about as simple a part of the operation as you can find, but people sometimes still manage to mess it up. You must use a lockable, hard-sided case that cannot be pried open. I use the MTM Single Gun Case. Because this is not a firearms-specific case, I am able to carry different weapons without issue. Regardless of which you choose, the operative terms here are “hard-sided” and “lockable.” If it doesn’t fit those two criteria, it’s a no-go.
It is very important that the firearm be unloaded before it goes into the case. Although not required, I often remove the slide from the frame and place the two side-by-side along with two magazines. That way, if TSA X-rays the case, they will see the firearm is not only unloaded but in a non-firing condition.
Choose standard keyed or combination locks that only you can open. You should not use TSA “luggage locks,” because TSA officials have pass keys for those units and you therefore cannot guarantee that only you have access to the case. TSA might X-ray the case during their screening process and, if they have any concerns, they might ask you to provide the key or combination. For this reason, most airports will ask you to remain near the check-in counter while the screening takes place.
TSA regulations allow you to travel with up to 11 pounds of ammunition in your checked luggage. Regardless of what the TSA homepage might or might not say, stick to factory loads in the original packaging.
After the firearm is in the locked case, place it in the luggage that you plan to check. As an extra precaution, I take a cable lock and secure the firearms case to the inside of the luggage. To do this, I unzip the liner and pass a laminated steel cable through the bars that hold the collapsible handle used to pull the luggage. I then zip the liner around the cable, leaving enough cable exposed to reach the firearms case, and run the cable through the firearms case handle and lock it. (The cable I use came from an old “ski tote” that used to keep my downhill skis where I wanted them, but any bike lock will work.) Granted, the handles inside the suitcase are not as strong and secure as the cable, but it would take some effort to separate the firearms case from your luggage. Effort draws attention, and thieves aren’t fond of either.
TSA regulations allow you to travel with up to 11 pounds of ammunition in your checked luggage. Regardless of what the TSA homepage might or might not say, stick to factory loads in the original packaging. Place the ammo in the bottom of your luggage; there’s no need to place it in your locked firearms case. On one extended trip, I placed my locked firearm in one piece of luggage and a box of ammunition in another. The idea was to distribute the weight more evenly, and doing so is perfectly allowable.
With your firearm secured inside your checked luggage, it’s time to head to the airport. Give yourself at least an extra 30 minutes to check in. After you’ve done this a few times, you’ll get a feel for how much time you really need, but every airport is different; more on that in a moment.
When you arrive at the airport, proceed to your airline’s Special Services check-in counter, which is usually at the end of the normal check-in counter and is operated for passengers with unique circumstances, such as wheelchairs or service animals. These counters are often staffed with some of the most experienced agents, and that makes the process all the more easy and comfortable.
When it is your turn to approach the counter, state respectfully and in a normal voice, “I would like to declare an unloaded firearm.” Avoid phrases like, “I have a gun,” and avoid speaking louder than normal. Simply be respectful and polite. The agent will ask to see the locked case, so be prepared to open your luggage. After seeing the case, the agent will ask you to sign a card declaring the firearm is unloaded. You will then be asked to place that card on top of the firearms case and then close your luggage. I once had the card separated from the case as my luggage moved around and, since then, I’ve placed a vinyl holder on top of the case that allows me to slide the declaration card into the holder and keep it securely attached. (The holder is a simple badge holder — like you might use at a conference for a name tag — held in place with double-sided foam tape.) With the declaration card on top of your firearms case, close and lock the luggage. (This would be the time and place for a TSA-approved lock.)
The next step in the process is what continues to surprise me. (Remember that part about each airport being different?) At my home airport, the agent calls TSA to communicate that checked luggage that contains an unloaded firearm is headed their way. The agent then takes my luggage to a special conveyor belt and sends it down, and I’m instructed to wait in a special area for my bag to be cleared. After about a 10-minute wait, the agent or a customer service representative will tell me that my bag is cleared. At this point, I can go through the usual security checkpoint and board the plane.
At other airports, I’ve experienced different procedures. Some ask you to carry the luggage to a special room, where you will watch a TSA officer perform the screen, after which they’ll send the bag to the airplane. At other airports, the agent will take your luggage and send it down the same conveyor used for all bags and will dismiss you to go through regular security. In other words, be prepared for variation. Your home airport and return airport are likely to follow different procedures.
After you land, retrieve your checked luggage and exit the airport. Before exiting, I often find a quiet corner to open my luggage to ensure the locked case is still in place, but I never remove the firearm at this point. I execute this quick check in case there is an issue and I need to go to the airline baggage office. (To date, I have never had a problem.)
Some airlines will bind your suitcase with large plastic ties for the flight, and when you retrieve your luggage, it will be basically inaccessible without a knife or strong clippers. If you did not check a knife in that bag, then you will either have to ask an agent for assistance or walk away with your luggage thus bound. Either way, those giant zip-ties attract attention. Remove them as soon as you can.
Always review the local laws and regulations for your destination before you pack your firearm. If you plan carefully and treat the airline and TSA agents with respect, you’ll find that traveling with your firearm on commercial flights is remarkably easy.
TSA Firearms Regulations: tsa.gov/travel/transporting-firearms-and-ammunition
MTM Case-Gard: mtmcase-gard.com