Flying with guns…and the time TSA called the cops on me.

Over the last decade, I’ve flown with guns a few hundred times. At first, it was a little nerve wracking, but now it’s almost boring.

Almost.

Flying with a gun and having to get approval from multiple non-gun people in authority leaves the door open for some interesting times.

So, today, I’m going to distill a decade of flying with guns so that if you want to take your gun on vacation with you, you’ll know how to minimize the chances of a bad interaction with your airline, TSA, or law enforcement.

One thing to keep in mind is that the rules change from airline to airline, day to day, and from employee to employee. It’s vital that you stay calm, pleasant, and flexible.

And, whatever you do, pass the attitude test.

It is very likely that you’ll know more about the airline’s firearms rules than the airline employee…but if you tell them that, you’ll be failing the attitude test. A better approach if they tell you you’re doing something wrong is to print out the airlines firearms policy and use this phrase, “I’m sorry…I went to your site last night and printed out the requirements so I wouldn’t do anything wrong. I just did what your site said to do.” Politely, hand them the printout of their company policy. “Is there any way you could call someone and see if this will work?” (insert kind smile at this point…remember, guns may scare them and you want to give them every reason possible to want to help you.

Here are some general guidelines that will make the process as painless as possible:

At home:

1. Print out the airline’s firearms guidelines as well as the TSA guidelines: https://www.tsa.gov/travel/transporting-firearms-and-ammunition

2. Ammunition. TSA says that the firearm and the ammo can be together in the same case. Southwest and Delta both ask to make sure they’re separate. TSA says that the ammo must also be in a hard case, but the airlines just want it in a LOCKED case. TSA says you can carry your ammo in a magazine if it’s completely covered. I carry mine in a factory ammo box. I carry the SIZE box that is most appropriate for the trip (20 rounds, 50 rounds) and put whatever ammo I want inside of it. The label on the box and the ammo inside do not need to match…all it needs to do is be safe and make the airline/TSA employee comfortable. Oftentimes, I’ll put a strip of masking tape over the end of the box. When I’m carrying a lot of ammo, I’ll weigh the boxes and write the weight on the outside of the box with a magic marker. (Different airlines have different limits on the weight of ammo that you have in each bag. Writing the weight on the boxes means the ticket agents don’t need to do extra work weighing your ammo…that makes them happy and that’s good for you.)

3. The lock. TSA says that the lock on your gun case can be a TSA lock, another keyed lock, or a combination lock. Some airline employees say that it must be a TSA lock. Keep in mind, the bag is in a secure area the whole time it’s out of your control. The locks are to protect the firearm from being stolen by airline, airport, and TSA personnel…it has nothing to do with keeping other people secure from your actions. I never use a TSA lock for my firearm. I use a keyed steel clamshell gun case inside of “ordinary” luggage. Many people have success with hard sided plastic cases that their firearm came in, but in many cases they require 2 locks to qualify as “secure.” If the ticket agent says I have to use a TSA lock, I politely show them the TSA printout or ask them to see if a TSA supervisor could come out because “I’m just doing what TSA told me to do.” The gun case is inside of my ordinary luggage, which does have a TSA lock on it.

4. Carry-on. I would suggest designating your bags as “hot” or “cold.” Cold bags never, never, ever touch or contain firearms, ammo, knives, OC, or anything else that could get you in trouble with airline security. Practically, what that means is that I can’t use the small backpack that I carry regularly for my carry-on. For women, it means never using a purse that you carry a pistol, knife, or OC in for your carry-on. Pack it and use a different bag for your carry-on. It’s inconvenient. It sucks. But it also sucks to go through security, turn around, and have them ask if the magazine, knife, OC that they are pulling from your carry-on is yours. (been there, done that. not fun. I don’t suggest it.)

5. Condition of the firearm. Clear. No magazine. I put Dry Fire Cord in it. The cord being visible out of both the ejection port and the muzzle makes it obvious that the firearm is clear without having to rack the slide and show clear.

6. Know the laws of the state(s) where you’re flying to AND through. This may or may not be an issue…your call on what you want to do, but keep in mind that not all states allow full capacity magazines. There have been times when I’ve flown into hostile territory and then driven to a neighboring state as my final destination and I’ve overnighted my full capacity magazines (and sometimes my firearm) to myself at my final destination. UPS allows you to overnight firearms to yourself without having to go through a dealer, but you should check before attempting it yourself.

As you’re driving onto the airport property or walking through the doors, it’s common to see nonsensical signs that say, “Firearms strictly prohibited on airport property” or “No firearms, knives, or weapons beyond this point.” What they should say is something along the lines of, “All civilian firearms must be unloaded, locked, and secured beyond this point.”

At the ticket counter.

1. Pass the attitude test. Smile. No 1000 yard stares. Don’t be a “scary gun guy.” Make their life as easy as possible.

2. Prepare to be flexible. I seriously doubt that I’ve ever encountered the exact same guidelines/procedures more than a couple of times. Even flying out of the same airport with the same ticket agent within a week or two of each other.

3. First thing…have your own pen ready and ask for a “declaration form.” I never say, “I have a gun” or anything like that. In fact, I try not to say gun or firearm at all. If they ask, “for what” my answer is, “a declaration form for my sidearm.” If I’m carrying a long gun, it’s my “deer rifle.” It’s not a time to debate the merits of the 2nd Ammendment…it’s a time to make it as easy as possible for the person in front of you to let you do what you want to do with as little friction as possible. Fill out both sides as much as you can and ask them if they could help you with the rest.

4. After you and they finish filling out the declaration form, it’s going to go inside of your luggage, next to the firearm. I used to have an envelope taped to my pistol case to put the declaration forms in, but the airlines have started affixing them with packing tape.  Make sure that you have the key for your gun case with you and not packed in your luggage.

5. Depending on the airport, they’ll either escort you and your bag over to a TSA inspector or they’ll take your bag and tell you to wait 10-15 minutes near the ticket counter before going through security.

Wait however long they tell you to…with a smile.

At some point-maybe once every 5 or so flights, depending on where you’re flying out of, TSA will page you, call you, or come get you and ask you for your key.  It can be a little unnerving the first few times, but as long as you’ve done everything right ahead of time, there’s nothing to be concerned about…just roll with it.

100% of the time the TSA guys checking my guns have ey’ve been nice guys doing their job. Smile. I’m a fan of airport security, but not necessarily the way TSA does it. Even so, I treat them with respect and I’ve had some great conversations with several guys who were inspecting my bag/gun.  I’m not overly talkative, but a lot of them are kind of sequestered and appreciate a little bit of face-to-face human interaction and ask questions about the gear that they see in my bag.

They’re going to swab your bag for explosives.  It seems silly that anyone carrying explosives would voluntarily expose themselves to additional scrutiny by declaring a firearm, but they’re going to do it so don’t cop any attitude.

Once. In an airport I won’t mention. The tsa guy came out and asked for my id and boarding pass (so I couldn’t board the plane) and informed me that local law enforcement were on the way because the situation was too severe for them to handle with out law enforcement.

The problem?

They had opened my locked, checked bag and found my son’s unloaded cap gun (originally mine 35 years ago) in my bag—and the gun was unsecured 🙂

He was a nice guy, doing his job and apologized—I’d guess he knew how silly it was. I didn’t give him any attitude, was apologetic, and I offered him the keys for my gun case…which he declined because they didn’t need to see my ACTUAL firearm.

Now, I’m not sure what the responding law enforcement said, but when the TSA officer came back to return my id and boarding pass, he was looking at the ground, even more apologetic, and quiet.

So, I thanked him, took my stuff and headed to my flight.

Why do I mention this?

A couple of reasons…

First, the most important thing you can do when flying with a firearm is to have a good attitude. I’ve done things wrong and been given grace because of attitude. I’ve known of people doing everything right but being surely and getting “extra attention”

Second, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to be flexible and roll with the situation.

What if my gun gets lost/stolen?

It happens…but it’s incredibly rare. Baggage handlers stole at least 2 Glock 26s in the Maui airport a year or two ago, but there were thousands of guns that weren’t stolen.

It’s more likely that your bag will arrive separately from you or end up at the wrong airport…but this is incredibly rare as well.

If it happens, you need to tell the airline that your baggage has a firearm in it.

They’ll tell you to immediately call your local police and report it missing/stolen. < Don’t do this. Tell them that if you report the serial numbers as stolen, those numbers will go in a database that feeds into other databases. If the firearm is found and you tell your local law enforcement, it MAY get cleared from their system but won’t necessarily get cleared from the databases it got sent to. What this means is that if you interact with law enforcement 3, 5, or 10 years in the future and they run your serial number, it may show up as stolen and you’re going to have to prove your innocence. In other words, the gun can lose a lot of value if it is ever reported stolen.  Only report the firearm as stolen if enough time has passed or the airline is willing to compensate you for a replacement firearm.

If you open your luggage and your firearm case is missing…that’s a different story and it’s probably time to report your firearm as stolen.

But…remember…it’s rare that firearms are stolen or go missing when flying.

What are your questions or experiences with flying with a firearm? Please share them by commenting below.

And, if you missed the encore presentation of the Praxis Gunfight Training last night, you can watch the replay between now and midnight Sunday night by clicking >HERE<

Please follow and share:

8 Comments

  • Julie

    Reply Reply August 3, 2019

    I’ve found they treat you with a different level of respect and courtesy when you show them your ccw card.

  • Sabel

    Reply Reply August 3, 2019

    Back in 2012, I was flying to and from Colorado and Florida a lot, usually with a firearm in my luggage. The rules back then called for the Declaration card to be placed inside the locked gun case that was packed inside the unlocked suitcase. If there was any logic to that rule, it totally escaped me. If the declaration is inside a locked box, how can the TSA inspectors read it? And if the outside suitcase cannot be locked, how difficult is it for somebody to open it, pull out the gun case, take it home and figure out how to open up at their leisure? And of course, there is the matter if trying to maintain a low profile at the ticket counter while the agent, in a raised voice, called for a special baggage handler to escort a passenger with a firearm to the special x-ray machine.

    I would have loved to be there to see the TSA inspector when he hand-checked my suitcase containing a take-down recurve bow and a quiver of arrows. That must have had a few of them scratching their heads.

    And then there was the Skycap, long before 9/11, who just kept shaking his head and saying, “Wellll, I don’t know…. I don’t think you can check this….” when I was checking a hard-sided double rifle case containing a ceremonial sword in a scabbard and leather case. I was flying out of New Jersey’s Newark Airport a day before the Pope was coming into NJ. This poor old man just couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of anyone traveling with a sword. He was SURE that I had nefarious plans for it. He never checked it to see that it didn’t even have an “edge” on it.

    For some reason, my bag is always the one chosen for a special hand inspection, even when it doesn’t contain any weapons other than a folded pocket knife. Lucky me.

    And then, there is the friend who keeps having toothbrushes confiscated when his checked baggage gets hand inspected. He has lost 3 at last count.

  • Ronald T. Folger

    Reply Reply August 2, 2019

    I have to disagree with NOT reporting it lost/stolen right away. Some states have severe penalties if a gun is not reported lost/stolen immediately upon discovery. Also, if your gun is used in a crime you have NO valid excuse.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply August 2, 2019

      Hey Ronald…I appreciate your thoughts on this. Let me share a story that may illustrate why it’s normally a bad idea.

      The year was 2007…the week before Easter and I flew home from Vegas to find that my luggage hadn’t made the plane.

      The representative from Delta told me to report my Kimber as stolen. I told them that they’d be buying me a new Kimber if I reported it stolen. At that point, their motivation changed and they told me that they’d have it to me by the end of the day. 4 hours later, while we were having seder supper with a group of friends, there was a knock at the door. There was a Delta employee…in a suit, if I remember right, with my bag and my Kimber. Amazingly enough, with the right motivation, they were able to find my bag and put it on the next plane.

      As to having a valid excuse…I absolutely did. Delta had a record of me checking the firearm in Vegas. The TSA room where they examined my firearm had cameras. I had paper in my hand from when I filed the baggage as missing at the airport as well as an email confirmation and presumably I could have subpoenaed Delta to get the recording of my call with them talking about the firearm missing.

  • Louis Palshaw

    Reply Reply August 2, 2019

    Your advice about attitude is sound and appropriate very time you deal with someone in authority. Several times I dealt with individuals who talked themselves into arrest or tickets because of a bad attitude.

  • Laura

    Reply Reply August 2, 2019

    I’ve found that domestic flights are the worst for losing my firearm. It’s been sent to other airports, put on a later flight, arrived with the locks cut off (luckily it was fine) and left on a plane and would have gone on to another airport if I hadn’t insisted they check for it. All my international flight have gone very well. It seems that those countries that have firearm policies that require paperwork are very careful to make sure you get it back safely.

  • azure

    Reply Reply August 2, 2019

    Delta Airlines will tag your bag with a second tag that indicates it contains a firearm. (Attention gun thieves!) Such bags are supposed to be picked up at the baggage claim office, but I’ve known of times when they ended up on the carousel with ordinary luggage.

    Great article! Thanks.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply August 2, 2019

      Yes…and they’ll zip-tie your bag at your destination (at some airports) so that there’s no doubt that 1. You have firearms in your luggage and 2. You’re not currently armed with a firearm, knife, OC, Taser, etc. I’ve got a whole ‘nother article on the ridiculousness that is Delta here: https://dryfiretrainingcards.com/blog/deltas-silly-new-rules-flying-guns/

Leave A Response

* Denotes Required Field