Taking Guns on Planes: A Guide to Air Travel with Firearms

Taking guns on planes is not as difficult as you may think. Traveling by air with firearms does require planning and adherence to regulations, but it’s not as complicated as some people make it sound. Whether you’re heading to a shooting competition, going hunting, or simply want to keep your firearm close while traveling, this guide is here to ensure your journey is as smooth and stress-free as possible.

First, the Disclaimer

I am not an attorney. I know a lot of them, but that still doesn’t make me an attorney. However, I have taken guns on planes for many years. I travel with firearms often and have more than a little experience with taking guns on planes.

Understand the TSA Regulations

The topic of taking guns on planes comes up a lot in Facebook groups. Someone asks and then a flood of urban legends and uninformed “I was told” responses start. Most respondents mean well, but they often lack actual experience.

First and foremost, familiarize yourself with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) regulations. These aren’t a big secret. They are there to keep you informed so there is not an issue at the checkpoint, and not to create problems.

Understand the Airline and Airport Policies

Some airlines and airports have variations of their own. For example, most airports take the bag at the counter, but Pittsburgh has you take it to a TSA checkpoint and they fully inspect it, including swabbing the case for explosives. It is a good practice to arrive 30 minutes earlier so you can jump through whatever hoops the airline requires.

Note: You can never use curbside drop-off when taking guns on planes.

Packing the Firearm

Packing correctly before you leave for the airport will help your check-in be smoother. According to the TSA:

  • Firearms must be transported in checked baggage only. The bag is not required to be a hard-sided bag. It should have a TSA-compliant lock.
  • Firearms must be completely unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container. The locks should NOT be TSA-compliant locks. The container does not have to be “TSA approved” (not a real thing) or any other sales gimmick.
  • The container must completely secure the firearm from being accessed. Some cases have holes for more than 1 lock. Some people claim they’ve been told that each hole has to have a lock, but I haven’t experienced this personally.
  • You will have to open your bag and show the ticket counter the locked case, so make sure it will be accessible without having to unpack your whole bag.
  • Ammunition must be packed securely in a cardboard, wood, plastic, or metal box specifically designed to carry ammunition. It could be packed in magazines, but “…you cannot use firearm magazines or clips for packing ammunition unless they completely enclose the ammunition.”
  • Magazines, whether loaded or not, must be boxed or in the hard-side case.
  • Gun parts, like bolts, firing pins etc must be in the checked bag. Scopes and optics can be transported in the carry-on.

Note: Some airlines have limits on the amount of ammunition that can be checked in or require it to be packed in a certain way.

Declaring Your Firearm

Upon arriving at the airport, head directly to the check-in counter to declare your firearm and any ammunition. Again, do not try to check your firearm at curbside check-in; it must be declared to an airline representative at the ticket counter.

When you get to the counter, don’t lead off with “I’ve got a gun”. Yes, I’ve seen it happen. (Happens on traffic stops too). I usually say something like:

“Good morning. I’m transporting an unloaded firearm. How would you like me to proceed?”

Trust me, they will appreciate your clarity and politeness. Don’t try to be funny or flex on them about your rights. Be a good ambassador for the 2A community.

Also, be prepared to show the airline employee how you’ve packed your firearm and ammunition. This might involve unlocking your case, so have your keys or combination ready.

You’ll need to fill out a declaration form stating that your firearm is unloaded. This is a simple orange tag that just requires your signature. Even though it usually has an elastic band on it, it should NOT be affixed to the outside of your bag.  TSA regulations state it should be placed inside the bag.

Security Screening and Airport Protocols

After declaring your firearm, the airline may have you transport the locked case to a special TSA screening area. Here, TSA agents may open the case to inspect the firearm and ensure it complies with regulations. You should remain present during this inspection, though only TSA staff will handle your firearm if necessary.

Other airports will just ask you to stay near the ticket counter for a few minutes while this inspection happens elsewhere.

A couple of other things may be worth mentioning here:

  • Some airlines (I’m looking at you Delta) may not allow you to check in for your return flight online if you flew the departure leg with a firearm. They assume that you’ll be bringing it back home.
  • Some airlines will not put your bag on the carousel at baggage claim. Instead, they may make you go to baggage services to show an ID when you pick up the bag.

Remember, patience and cooperation with TSA and airline staff are key. They are responsible for the safety of all passengers, and their procedures are in place to ensure everyone’s security.

Know Your Destination

You are responsible for knowing the laws that apply to your destination. For example, a concealed weapons license from Florida would be recognized in Colorado, but the 17-round magazines that come with a Springfield Arms Echelon would not be allowed. Some locations may restrict certain types of guns or ammo as well.

International Travel Considerations

If you’re traveling internationally, the process becomes more complex. In addition to TSA and airline regulations, you must comply with the laws governing firearms in your destination country, and possibly others you transit through. This can include obtaining permits or licenses in advance.

Contact the embassy or consulate of your destination country well before your trip to understand specific requirements. Also, consider consulting with a customs broker or an attorney who specializes in international firearms transport to navigate these regulations.

How Do I Travel?

Since I travel a lot with my wife and my profession involves my ability to continue taking guns on planes, I play it safe. Instead of trying to see what I can get away with, I err on the side of caution.

For pleasure trips, my wife and I will travel with small pistols (My LCP Max or a Shield Plus, her Glock 43). When we do this, I use this case from Snap Safe. The case is metal, so the airlines feel nice and secure about it. It comes with a steel cable so if I find myself in a situation where I have to leave my gun in the car or our AirBnB, I can cable it down as an added level of security. It holds both of our guns and magazines, but there are other sizes available if you need more space.

For ammo, I use this MTM Ammo Box or something similar. Again, it’s sturdy looking and makes the airlines feel more confident than a dog-eared cardboard box.

Final Thoughts

While flying with guns requires extra steps, it’s not difficult with the right preparation. By understanding and adhering to TSA and airline policies, packing your firearms correctly, and declaring everything properly, you can ensure a smooth and stress-free journey. Remember, the key is in the details: secure packaging, thorough documentation, and clear communication with airline and security personnel.

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