(Note: I wrote this last Thursday morning. Then never had time to post it, what with one thing and another. Here it is now though!)
As I write this, I’m sitting on an airplane. Doing a lot of that these days, hanging in the sky on my way from one place to another. It was an early flight today, 6 am takeoff out of Seattle, which means I’ve been up since 3:15 or so. Yes, I suppose that’s technically morning, but some folks would say it’s still the middle of the night. *yawn.*
Because of who I am and what I do, I always bring at least two handguns with me when I fly. I also bring holsters, blue dummy guns, inert training rounds, and all sorts of other raise-an-eyebrow goodies for the TSA to wonder about. So you can take it from me when I say this: it really is not a big deal to fly with your gun. You simply follow the rules provided by the TSA.
First, the rules. Here’s a link to the offical TSA info about them: Traveling with Firearms
Here’s a link to the actual wording of the federal law that applies when flying with a gun: 49 CFR 1544.203
In a nutshell, if you want to bring your handgun with you when you fly, you must put it inside your checked luggage. (Not in the carry-on, natch!) Your suitcase must shut with a TSA-approved lock. Inside the suitcase, you’ll put a small, hard-sided lockbox that holds the unloaded gun.
The key or combination to the inner lockbox must stay only with you, which means the inner lock should not be TSA-approved (see section f.2.iii of the federal law linked above). Some airport layouts make following that particular law a little sticky. It’s up to you how hardnosed you want to be about encouraging them to follow the law, or about maintaining the security of your firearm. 1
One thing that’s helped me stay more relaxed about my gun’s security: I run a cable lock through the spine of the suitcase (behind the inner lining) and attach it to my gun case with a non-TSA lock. That way, if someone in the airport wants to take my firearm, they’ll need to take the entire suitcase. Not impossible, but much less likely.
You may wonder why I’m making such a big deal about TSA locks vs. non-TSA locks. It’s really rather simple: TSA locks aren’t exactly secure. They are accessible by anyone with access to the luggage and a master key — and those master keys aren’t all that hard to obtain, no matter what the official claim about that might be. For that reason, I use TSA locks only where required for compliance, and choose more secure locks otherwise. This goes doubly or even triply for the lockbox that actually holds the gun, since federal law does require that “only the individual checking the baggage retains the key or combination.”
Airlines have different rules about ammunition. In general, you can fly with enough ammo to fill a magazine or two. Ammo needs to remain in its original packaging, and the original packaging should hold the rounds separately so they don’t jostle all together during the flight. How much ammunition you can pack, and whether it goes inside or outside the lockbox, is up to the individual airline. So here’s the tip: hop online and check your airlines’ specific rule before you fly.
Some TSA agents get nervous if the ammo box has a few empty spots in it. I once waited nearly 45 minutes for the agents to completely disassemble and reassemble a friend’s luggage, looking for the “missing” rounds from a partially-used box. Since then, if I need to travel with a less-than-full box, I always write the actual round count on the top of the ammo box with a sharpie before I get to the airport. It seems to help, and several have thanked me for it.
Whether or not you intend to fly with your firearm, you should always empty your carry on completely – all the pockets, everything! – before you pack it for your trip. That’s because one stray round can cause a lot of trouble. So can a forgotten pocketknife or (heaven forbid!) the tiny little backup gun you thought you’d put back in the gun safe after your last trip.
- If someone wants to take the key out of my sight, I usually smile politely and remain friendly as I request a sworn law enforcement officer to oversee the process. That lets TSA agents do their required-by-law luggage check without any risk of my key falling into non-sworn, thieving hands. ↩