- Hard Case (must be able to be locked)
- Locked and Cleared Firearm (inside hard case)
- Ammunition in original box or a box designed to carry ammunication (inside hard case)
- Magazines (inside hard case)
- A lock (to lock your firearm hard case)
- Go to check-in counter and declare the firearm
- Fill-out declaration form and follow instructions from check-in counter
When I was on active duty and flew “on business” (deployed) within the Contiguous United States (CONUS) I never even considered traveling with any of my firearms. That is not to say that I was ever unarmed. Green Berets are always armed in some way. As the damsel-teacher tells her young knight apprentice in John Steinbeck’s “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights”, “The final weapon is the brain, all else is supplemental.” Nevertheless, now a civilian who also happens to hold three distinct concealed carry permits with a reciprocity coverage of 40 states, I oftentimes travel where my firearm can be legally carried. So, how would you go about conducting air travel with your legally purchased concealed-carry firearm? Are there additional charges? How do you pack it? Who do you have to show it to at the airport? Is it a long process?
The very first thing you must do before considering flying to your US destination with a firearm is research the specific laws concerning concealed carry, expected law enforcement notification procedures if stopped and questioned by an officer, and the laws governing the circumstances under which you are legally allowed to use lethal force in that state. There are many commonalities, but you want to informed nevertheless.
Next, you must ensure that your firearm is completely functional. I know this is not usually discussed when people talk about traveling with a firearm. However, the last thing you want is for your firearm to do something unexpected when you are already in an unfamiliar place. More importantly, you want to make sure that your firearm does what it is supposed to do when you need it to do so. So, field strip it, clean it, lubricate it, conduct a functions check and – if able – take it to the local range and fire five-to-ten rounds to make sure it is working properly. If everything works, your firearm is fit for travel.
While each airline and airport has some latitude in the establishment of procedures governing traveling with firearms, there are some universally accepted criteria as established by the Transportation Security Administration.
- Lockable Rigid Case: Most firearms now come in lockable storage cases right from the factory. Some may come in a case that does not have the ability to be locked. What is most common is a hard-sided plastic case with holes for the use of one or two locks. But, you can purchase an after-market hard case. I travel with a very robust Pelican Weatherproof Hard Case (Pelican Hard Cases) that I can lock with two single-key padlocks (both locks use the same key). I then pack this hard case inside my luggage and make sure to lock the luggage as well.
- Original Ammunition Packaging: You can only check up to 11 pounds maximum weight of ammunition. The ammunition must be stored in the original manufacturer’s packaging, or “or securely packed in fiber, wood, plastic or metal boxes and provide separation for cartridges”. As I usually travel with my firearm for self-defense and not for sports events, I generally carry no more than two magazines worth of Hornady Critical Duty 147 gr rounds in their original boxes. According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the ammunition can be carried within the same hard case as the firearm. So, in my configuration, there is enough room for my two original Hornady boxes, two magazines, and my firearm. This is then all locked in the case. Do not have any loose ammunition in your luggage.
- Firearm Accessories: According to the TSA website, rifle/pistol scopes are permitted in your carry-on. However, the Delta Airlines website states that it must be “included in one case” and it does not further clarify what this means. Must it be locked also with your checked luggage? Must it be a hard case? Delta Airlines is fairly ambiguous on this. Magazines are not considered accessories, but part of the firearm. Thus, they must be locked in checked luggage, just as your firearm must be locked.
- Locked and Cleared: Ensure that your firearm is cleared and locked to the rear. When you declare the firearm (see below), the airline attendant at the counter may or may not ask you to show them the firearm to ensure it is not loaded. Certainly have it locked and cleared. To prevent from having to handle my weapon at the counter to show this, I also lock it using the manufacturer-provided cable lock where the cable runs through the magazine well and out of the chamber and is securely locked. When I was asked to show it once, I merely opened my luggage, unlocked my gun case while it was still inside the luggage (remember, it was just a pistol, not a rifle), and the attendant immediately saw the cable lock running through and didn’t give it a second glance.
- Key Control: Maintain control of the key to your firearm case at all times.
I always say “unloaded firearm” because – as one of Special Forces buddies used to say – “words mean things” and these two words set the person at ease immediately.
Arrive 40 minutes earlier than you would normally arrive when not traveling with a firearm. I have had this whole process done in 20 minutes, and in another airport it took about 40 minutes. It depends on how busy it is, the knowledge of the attendant at the counter, and the availability of bag escorts (see below). When you first arrive at the airport, you should approach your airline’s check-in counter area and look for a “special services” counter. If you do not see this, simply approach a floor supervisor (they are usually near the First Class check-in area) and tell them that you’d like to check-in your firearm and they will point you in the right direction.
“Words Mean Things”
Once it is your turn at the counter, politely and calmly tell the attendant that you’d like to declare an “unloaded firearm” in your checked luggage. I always say “unloaded firearm” because – as one of Special Forces buddies used to say – “words mean things” and these two words set the person at ease immediately. It is a Special Forces Jedi mind trick thing. Use words and your demeanor to put people at ease. If you have had a bad day and are upset, don’t go up to that counter and declare your firearm until you’ve calmed down. Know your operational environment. As unsafe as the world is, you don’t need to give others more reason to worry.
The attendant may or may not ask to you to show the firearm. Do as you are told and be safe in how you handle it. Be professional. You will be asked to fill out a Firearm Declaration Form. The one used by United Airlines is an orange card that you date and sign. American Airlines uses a white card. This card will go inside your luggage, near the top of the gun case, or as directed by the counter attendant.
Next, your luggage will be escorted by a designated airport employee to either be inspected by an X-ray machine (as it is done in Dulles International Airport) and then sent into the luggage handling system that will take it to your plane, or just sent to the plane.
At Your Destination
At your destination airport, you may pick up your luggage from the bagage carousel like everyone else, or you may have to go to the baggage service office – where people go when they lose luggage – and claim it there. Some other aiports, like the Tucson International Airport, have an airport employee personally bring the baggage out to you. In either case, you must show your luggage ticket as well as identification in order to claim your luggage.
Some airports, though not many, make it a practice to visibly tag your luggage so that airport employees know that there is a firearm being transported there. I personally believe this to be an idiotic practice that identifies your luggage to any would be thief baggage handler who would like to swipe your firearm as it happed recently in Austin, Texas (Firearms Stolen in Austin Airport).
Forget Early Check-In
If you counted on doing your early check-in via your trusty airline mobile app on your return trip, forget about it. Once you check-in and declare your firearm on the way to your destination, the system will automatically flag your reservation for “special services” and you will NOT be able to do early check-in online for your return flight. They know you flew a firearm to your initial destination and fully expect you to travel with it on the way back.
I have yet to be charged additional fees for declaring and checking-in a firearm. However, Delta Airlines states that if you check-in more than one gun case “an excess baggage fee will apply”.
If you are like me and shoot a lot each month, DO NOT use the same bag you use to go to the range (range bag) as a carry-on bag no matter how confident you are that you’ve taken out all unauthorized items such as magazines, ammunition, etc. These bags have many pockets, and we may forget that we put something in there. Do not be the guy who takes a loaded magazine into the security area. I separate my bags. I have an awesome Osprey backpack to serve as my carry-on bag, and I have a more tactical 5.11 backpack for everything having to do with shooting. The two bags never meet.
Also, when you arrive at your destination, do not put your weapon into operation (loaded magazine and holstered) until you are away from the airport facility.