Let's talk about guns and air travel. I just finished my class with Tom Givens in Kansas City, and now I'm sitting in the brand new (as in, opened for service about 12 hours ago) KCI air terminal, awaiting the first leg of my flight home. This seems like a perfect opportunity to tell you how I have transported my guns and ammo for this particular trip.
Disclaimer: This is a guide. This method works for me, within the specific contexts herein described. While I make every effort to represent accurate legal and factual information, you are responsible to conduct your own research, formulate your own travel plan, and bear any consequences that come of it. This article will not address traveling with NFA items, foreign travel, or the Firearm Owners Protection Act.
Premise: the legality of flying with firearms
It is perfectly legal to fly with firearms as long as you operate within two key sets of legal boundaries:
Gun laws in all relevant jurisdictions: your home, your destination, and any other waypoints included in your travel. Remember to account not only for state laws, but also regulations of all counties, cities, or other jurisdictions you will enter.
We will address those two points in that order, because it reflects the chronology of preparing for a trip.
(Note: firearm parts—such as magazines, clips, bolts, and firing pins—are to be transported in the same manner as the firearm itself. Accessories like holsters, optics, gun belts, and ear protection may travel in a checked bag or a carry-on.)
1. GUN LAWS
First off, here's the equipment I wanted to take to Kansas City.
A Glock 17 with a red dot (as my primary training firearm)
A Glock 17 with iron sights (as my backup training firearm)
A Glock 43xMOS with a red dot (for concealed carry in and around KC)
Three 17-round magazines for the G17s
Three Shield Arms 15-round magazines for the G43xMOS
Not wanting to run afoul of gun laws during my travel, I researched the legal status of this equipment at every waypoint along my journey. The website www.handgunlaw.us is one resource that I regard as credible, at least as a starting point. From that site, I learned...
All of this equipment is legal in Idaho.
All of this equipment is legal in Kansas City. (The airport is in Missouri, but my training and hotel were in Kansas, so I was careful to check both states.)
All of this equipment is legal in Phoenix, Arizona.
All of this equipment is legal in Dallas, Texas.
Colorado, however, made things a bit more complex.
In 2013, Colorado passed legislation restricting magazines to a maximum capacity of 15 rounds. What about my three 17-rounders? Would they present any significant legal exposure on a three-hour layover during which, presumably, nobody would fiddle with the checked bag or locked case containing the magazines, other than to transfer it to the Boise flight? To probe, I called a couple of Denver gun shops and they assured me that there was essentially no legal risk for me. They explained...
The law requires that magazines made in Colorado after the law took effect must hold no more than 15 rounds and must bear a stamp or permanent marking indicating the date of manufacture.* My magazines were not made in Colorado, so they are exempt from this requirement regardless of date of manufacture.
Magazines which hold more than 15 rounds and which were owned prior to the restriction are grandfathered. Moreover, because magazines made outside of Colorado, whether before or after the law took effect, are not subject to the stamp requirement, the two groups are generally indistinguishable to law enforcement.
On reading that, you may wonder how Colorado prosecutors could demonstrate to a court's satisfaction that a particular magazine is unlawfully possessed. If so, pat yourself on the back for your keen legal perceptiveness! As it turns out, Colorado police agencies share your doubt and have almost universally refused to enforce this law.
In the end, the gun store employees were absolutely confident that I would encounter no problems in my travel through Denver, and I was satisfied with this.
It's worth noting that I also had a somewhat attractive, less-expensive option to route my travel through Oakland, in the former US state of California. Knowing that urban California in general, and portions of the Bay Area in particular, are rabidly anti-gun, I called one Bay Area gun shop and two attorneys to ask about the Oakland option. All three strongly recommended that I avoid flying through California for reasons I cover in MoD.Handgun.1. In the event that my flight out of Oakland were canceled and I found myself grounded for the night, I would have to exit security, and re-enter the following morning. Upon declaring the firearms at check-in, TSA would certainly observe not only my "high-capacity" magazines, but also my firearms, which may or may not be on the California DOJ roster, and are not compliant with any permitting process in California. The decision as to whether to refer my equipment to local law enforcement for possible prosecution would be up to the TSA. No thanks! As far as this American is concerned, any domain in which malum prohibitum laws are used as weapons against the people is to be avoided by a wide margin and vehemently condemned until it is defeated.
Ok, so my gear is legal (or close enough) in all planned areas of travel. Now, how do I fly with it?
2. TSA REGULATIONS
The TSA requires that firearms and firearm parts (including magazines, which we will return to momentarily) must be packed in a lockable hard-sided case. The case must be rigid enough to thwart attempts by prying fingers to remove any item from the case.
Where may I find such a case? Having done this before, I have come to rely on the "Apache" line of locking hard cases from Harbor Freight Tools. These cases are robust, secure, lockable, affordable, available in a variety of sizes and colors, and are probably on the shelf right now at your nearest store. For three Glocks and six magazines, the "2800" model proved just right, and cost me about $30 with Harbor Freight's ultra-common 20% off coupon.
There certainly are other options. I have been very happy with a flight case from SKB, and of course Pelican makes a case for everything in the known universe—though both options will cost you more money. Regardless, if premium brands are your bag (or...case?) then head to your nearest big-box sporting goods store and explore the offerings to your heart's content.
Let's talk custom-fit foam for a moment. Most cases contain several layers of gray foam to cushion your gear. Some of those layers are partially pre-cut and can be removed to approximate the profile of your gun, which means that Minecraft junkies can finally do something useful with their lives! For those of you who believe in non-right-angles and variable dimensions in space, you can create a template of your gun and then trace it with a hot knife. Or, if you're Adrian Monk, build a special, perfectly flat, perfectly level table, resting on a perfectly level floor, with a resistant (aka, "hot") wire under tension running perfectly perpendicular to the ground; run your foam through it and then stand back and admire your C- work that cost you three days and $150 at Radio Shack. Whichever route you go, remember the timeless workshop axiom: "measure twice, cut once, swear a lot, and cope with disappointment."
To preserve future options, I chose to leave my foam alone.
A locking case without locks is just a case, and won't meet TSA requirements. So, I have accumulated a small collection of locks for my several travel cases. My favorites came from a six-pack of locks (by Brinks, if you care). "Why six when a typical pistol case requires only two?" Anticipating that I might someday fly with long guns (think: bigger case and maybe as many as six lock points) I have chosen to preempt having to keep track of which key goes with which lock/s, as would be the case if I bought, say, three two-packs of locks. So, whether I'm traveling with a handgun case or a long gun case, a single key does the job.
My locks look a bit disproportionately robust when placed on the handgun case. Hey, these are my firearms, and firearm theft is a real thing! So a little visual deterrence can’t hurt, right?
You must also test your locks for proper fit in the lock points on the case. Too tight and the lock won’t clasp; too loose and the case might be open-able even with the locks installed.
Despite what you can read online, there is no requirement that the TSA have unrestricted, autonomous access to the contents of your case, and therefore, no requirement that you use TSA locks. With that in mind, I recommend against TSA locks. Given the option, I prefer to be the only person in possession of the only key for my case, which contains my firearms. Anything else invites trouble, in my opinion.
Before you even think about heading to the airport, do two more really important things:
1. Make absolutely certain that your firearms are unloaded! The TSA defines a loaded firearm as any firearm with...
a live round in the chamber; or
any component of a live round in the chamber; or
a magazine containing a live round or any component of a live round, which has been inserted into the firearm
So, to keep it simple, make sure your chamber and magazine well are empty, empty, empty.
2. Make absolutely certain that your clothing and baggage are 100% devoid of firearm parts, and ammunition or ammo components. While I haven't experienced it personally, a little bird tells me that TSA does not take kindly to even the most innocent "oopsi." Make sure that the dud round you put in your shirt pocket yesterday during training does not try to slip through security today at the airport, and that the split .30-06 case you put in your backpack last hunting season is purged from your carry-on.
Phew! Preliminary legal CYA: done.
Now make sure your gear fits into the case, that the locks fit onto the lock points, and that the whole array fits into a bigger bag that you intend to check. Assuming all of that goes as expected, you are ready to head to the airport, although I fervently recommend waiting until about three hours before the date and time appearing on your itinerary.
Time to fly
On the day of your travel, allow a little extra time for check-in at the ticket counter and subsequent TSA inspection of your firearm case.
The first step is for you to declare to the airline agent your intent to transport the firearm/s.
Let me say that again: you will NEED to DECLARE your firearm/s to the airline agent!
No big deal...unless you fail to do so.
Once you declare your firearms (did I urge you to declare your firearms yet?) the agent will ask you to fill out a small tag with your contact information. The tag will then be affixed to your gun case.
At that point, procedures may vary. The airline may toss your bag on their conveyor belt as they normally would, or you may be directed to take your bag to a TSA office, counter, or kiosk.
(Here's a helpful tip: make sure you retain the key for your flight case. Heaven help you if the TSA wants to have a look and your key is in checked bag #2 that is already out on the tarmac somewhere.)
Boise has a TSA counter and the agents there want to have a look. They won't handle your firearms, but they will visually inspect to make sure the firearms appear to be unloaded, and they will run a couple of other harmless tests that I won't disclose here.
On the other hand, in Kansas City, Southwest threw my bag on the belt and advised me to wait outside of the security checkpoint for about five minutes; if TSA wanted to inspect my firearm case, they would page me over the PA system. (They did not page me.)
What about ammo?
Ammo is treated quite differently from firearms. If it is convenient and cost effective for you, it may be locked up in the same case as your gun or a different case, but a locking container is not required (except for ammo stored within a magazine: the magazine must be inside the locking case, but outside the magazine well). There is a prohibition on loose ammo, so you should look toward typical factory 20-, 50-, or 100-round packaging, or the plastic boxes that hand-loaders might use from MTM and other companies, so that each round is isolated from the others.
It appears as if the TSA allows airlines to set their own quantity limits on ammo. In my research, that limit seems to be 11 pounds on most airlines. I wouldn't necessarily show up at the airport expecting a deduction for the weight of your ammo cartons, either.
In all honesty, I'm not sure whether ammo must be declared, but to be on the safe side, I absolutely would declare it!
Before we move on from the ammo topic, I'll tell you about a workaround that I used for this trip to KC. If you're clever and polite, you may be able to arrange something similar. Knowing that the required 850 rounds of 9mm would exceed the 11-pound airline limit, I emailed Mr. Givens well in advance, asking for suggestions. He put me in touch with an employee of the range that was hosting the training course. The employee was cheerfully willing to accept shipment of my online ammo purchase and store the ammo until I arrived for training. Excellent!
Then, since I had bought loose ammo, I simply asked classmates not to discard their factory 50-round boxes as they emptied them. Out went their rounds, and in went my rounds. Once they were all boxed up, I put the boxes in a ziplock bag, and put the ziplock bag in a soft-sided cooler, which flew home as checked baggage.
A little creativity can go a long way, if you know the regulations.
What about long guns?
If you're traveling with a rifle, shotgun, or carbine, follow the same requirements as for handguns.
One difference is that the locking case for a long gun is unlikely to fit inside of another checked bag, so you may have to pony up for an additional bag fee.
Another difference is how you retrieve your item at your destination: handgun cases inside another checked bag will come out on the carousel; long guns will most likely go to your airline's baggage office.
Because of the wider spans between locks and latches on a long gun case vs. a handgun case, (think: leverage) you should make doubly sure the case material is adequately rigid to keep all contents safe inside.
Keep in mind that just because you have moved your guns and related stuff through the airports lawfully does not mean you are entitled to carry at your destination. I mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating.
If you have read and understood this article, checked with your airline, and followed TSA regulations, you are well on your way to traveling with your firearms in a lawful manner. So, relax! Be thankful to live in a country where your right to keep and bear arms is so important that air carriers and related bureaucracies are accommodating, even at extra expense and logistical concern.
Not many people in the world get to fly with guns. You do. So do it right, and do it proudly.
*For an interesting story, research "Magpul leaves Colorado."