Flying with firearms is much easier than you may think! Federal law protects travelers en route to all 50 states, as long as you are lawfully able possess in the first place.
I just returned from a glorious two week vacation to Alaska. While Alaska is one of those “special circumstance” states regarding firearms, I still took the time to take pictures of the process and talk to the TSA agents that inspected our weapons case. I am always surprised at how easy and flawless the process is!
Before I get into it, let me elaborate on Alaska firearms policy. Alaska is one of the only states in the US that allows both open and conceal carry without a permit. As long as you are legally able to own and carry a gun, you can do so there without any kind of license. Alaska is also a huge hunting destination, and they are used to people traveling with guns. Later on in this article, we will see how different that is from say, New York.
Flying With Firearms: TSA Rules
When flying with firearms, you must not only comply with Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) rules, but also the rules of whatever airline you are using. For the most part, the airlines are consistent, but there are a few minor differences among them. Know both the TSA’s and your airline’s polices inside and out, and don’t break them! Doing so may not only delay your travel, but may also land you in jail!
Packing Your Firearm
TSA and all airlines require that firearms must be packed in a hard sided container, and that only the passenger retains the keys. The most popular brand of case is made by Pelican, but there are many other companies to choose from. The cases come in many sizes; from single pistol, to multiple pistol, to long gun cases. You will also need to purchase 2 locks, preferably with different keys, to place on the case. Be sure to get non TSA locks!
It is also required that all firearms must be checked. No guns are allowed in the cabin of the aircraft. You can either check the case as a separate piece of luggage as I do, or try and fit it into your regular luggage. I never travel with just one firearm so my case is too large to fit into my other luggage. If you do place a gun case into your regular luggage, I would suggest cabling it to your suitcase.
This is where airline rules differ. All require guns to be unloaded. Some have ammo limit restrictions, some require all ammo to be in its original manufacturers box, and some just want it in any kind of separate box before it is placed into the gun luggage case. Bottom line, know the rules for your airline.
Flying With Firearms: Airport Check In
You must stand in the long line to check in your firearm. You are not able to use the self check in kiosks. When you get up to the desk, orally declare you need to check in a firearm and the clerk will hand you a small form to fill out. One part of the form goes into your firearms case, and the other one will be stapled to your boarding pass.
You will then be sent to the Oversize Baggage Screening counter with your firearms case. The TSA agents will take it from you, and scan it for explosives. I know, I know. Guns and gunpowder equals explosives right? So I asked the guy what exactly they were scanning for. He said “bomb materials and residue.” They can tell the difference without even opening up your case!
I advise you not to walk away until your firearms case is cleared, even if there is a long line. If for some reason your case is flagged and they need to open it, you will be paged over the airport loudspeaker to come back. If you do not come back, you will not be allowed to board your plane and they will make you come back. Being that I fly out of Atlanta, the Oversize Baggage counter is more than a half an hour away from the gates, not including the time spent in the security check line, which you will have to go through again. Save yourself the headache and just get to the airport early. Another tip: try to book very early or very late flights to avoid crowds and long wait times.
Flying With Firearms: F.O.P.A.
The Firearms Owners Protection Act, or FOPA, is the federal law that protects travelers carrying firearms across all 50 state lines. Despite this law, authorities at some airports have been known to enforce their own states local laws instead. I bet you already know the rogue states…yep, New York and New Jersey. Authorities at JFK, La Guardia and Newark have no problems holding you, or even arresting you for the simple act of bringing a firearm into their state.
Only after you are arrested will they let you “claim” your innocence through the FOPA act. Unfortunately, they don’t always stop with just hassling you. Many innocent folks have ended up having to go through the court system to clear their good name and get their guns back. For doing nothing wrong! My advice to you if you must travel to these anti gun states is either to ship your firearms or drive. My personal solution is not to go in the first place.
Regrettably, the FOPA act only protects you while you are “traveling through” each state. When you get to your hotel or other “destination,” the local laws kick in. Anti gun authorities have been known to exploit this, so do not give them any reason to nab you.
Flying With Firearms: Know The Gun Laws Of Your Destination
I cannot emphasize this enough. You must be well versed in the gun laws of wherever you are traveling to. Just because your conceal carry license is reciprocal doesn’t mean that the gun laws are the same as in your home state. Alaska, for example, has a very strict rule that you must tell a police officer immediately that you have a firearm in your car if you are pulled over. Being a tourist doesn’t matter…if you don’t reveal that information and they find out, they can take you to jail.
Some reciprocal states allow open carry, some don’t. Some allow carry in bars, some don’t. To learn more about reciprocity and each state’s gun laws, click here. I would advise you to either print out a copy of the gun laws from each state that you will be visiting, or download an app to your phone. Legal Heat is a great app, as is CCW – Concealed Carry 50 states. Both of these cost a few dollars, but there are plenty of free ones out there too.
On a side note, also be aware of each state’s non firearm self defense laws. I will be traveling to Missouri in a few weeks, and while my gun will be legal my Bad Kitty will not! The Bad Kitty is considered as brass knuckles in some states, including Missouri, and is illegal there. I will have to take it off of my key ring or risk being arrested. Sigh.
Flying With Firearms: Baggage Claim Pickup
So you’ve made it to your destination and know the gun laws there…time to claim your firearms case! Your case will not come out on the baggage carousal with the rest of your luggage. Firearms are the last items taken off the plane, so claim your regular luggage first. Then ask one of the attendants at the carousal where to claim your firearms case.
If you have put a small case into your regular luggage, it will not come out on the carousal either. Like the checked cases, you will have to ask an attendant where to pick it up.
Each airport is different. In Atlanta, the firearms were all brought to the individual airline’s check in counter. In Alaska, there were so many firearms checked that we claimed them from their Oversize Baggage Screening counter. With both pickups, however, we had to show picture ID, the firearms declaration form, and the checked baggage sticker was matched to the case. Firearms cases look very similar, so be sure you claim the right one!
That’s it! It really is that simple to fly with firearms! I would also like to add that in no way were we ever made to feel uncomfortable during our trip flying with firearms. All of the airport personnel were very professional, non judgmental, and happy to answer all of my questions. Many people, many more than you could ever believe, fly with their firearms every day. Happy travels!