Mac's Guide to Flying with a Firearm:
Well, I see a lot of people post questions, anecdotes, etc about flying with firearms. I thought I would add my carry procedure for flying with my CCW.
My Colorado CWP gives me a lot of places I can carry. And seeing as I travel a lot, I've started flying with my CCW quite a bit too. At first it can be a little confusing, nervous, etc. But after doing this for a few years, and a lot of trips, I've been able to boil my system down to something that I believe is secure and works for me.
This info will come in several consecutive posts due to pics. However, I will cover:
A. Packing and security
B. Checking your bag at the airline
C. Things I've had go wrong (there are very few, and none were major issues).
But first, a few things:
1. Study the laws of your destination. Please. Find out if you can possess a pistol there, find out if you can carry, find out what the carry rules are (for example, in New Mexico you cannot carry a backup gun, etc). And just because it is easy as pie to fly TO a place, if that place is like...say, NYC... it can be difficult to get HOME with it. Some of this is legal, and some is just how uncooperative the folks at the airline can be. Just google CCW laws for a specific state, visit "concealed carry trip planner"--a good website with some good info (though it takes a few months at least for new laws to be updated), or reference the current version of the Traveler's Firearms Guide.
2. Know your rights and the regulations you are subject to. I'm not kidding here. There are some foundational rules that both protect you and can hurt you. Know what they are before you fly. I'll give you my system and how I confirm these, but check them out yourself before you go. They can change. And if a TSA agent asks you to do something that is NOT in their regs, don't do it. Get a supervisor. Mostly this is giving them your key or combo to the gun case... but know what your rights are. Don't make a scene. Don't be mean. No need for that if you have the law and regs on your side. Be gracious, professional, and FIRM. That's all that's needed.
3. Keep copies of the TSA regs on you, in our bag, and with your gun. I keep a copy with my travel docs (passport, license, tickets, etc), in the locked case with the gun, and tucked into the handle of the case for inspectors. Often I'll keep a copy of the individual airline's regs as well.
4. I recommend you fly with your CCW, so long as you follow all laws both for flying and for your destination. This is an important way to responsibly and calmly stand up for our gun rights without being "activists" and putting ourselves in contentious situations. And the more customers airlines have who travel with guns--smoothly and without incident--the easier it will become for us. This could potentially affect a lot of ccw laws and firearm transportation laws positively over time... but that's a whole 'nother discussion.
A. PACKING AND SECURITY
One of the main fears people have of flying with a firearm is security. Even if you can get on the plane, what if someone steals my super custom whizz-bang 99? We've all heard these stories, and I've talked to a guy who had it happen.
So I put in an extra step where possible. And I'll detail that below. I will say that it is very rare to see a case taken. And it's even more rare to lose a bag forever. Most lost luggage comes back in a day or so. For me, it's worth flying with my CCW, but I usually don't take the Dan Wesson. I'll take a Glock, M&P, XD, etc. A striker pistol that is a good gun, I shoot well, but is replaceable if I accidentally cut Murphy off in traffic on the way to the airport or something.
First of all, let me give you a link to the TSA site. This is their summary of their regs. Again, I always keep a copy of this with me, with the gun, and in the main bag as a whole.
Here's a bare bones summary:
1. You are allowed to fly with a firearm.
2. It must be unloaded.
3. It must be in a locked case, that cannot be easily openend/defeated, and ONLY YOU may have the lock or combo to access it (a very important point).
4. Ammo must be in it's own case (generally the original box, but I'll detail why later). Ammo does not have to be locked in the same case, and can only be stored in the magazine if the magazine is properly stored itself: ie, in a tight case, covered properly, etc. I don't recommend leaving in the mag, and I'll detail that later as well.
5. Other than the gun, all locks must be TSA approved locks. TSA approved locks have a TSA master key that can open them. But when it comes to the gun, specifically, it says that ONLY YOU can have access. So get your own lock, keyed or combo, and make it as good as you can for what will fit your lock slot... which is usually about a 1'' bolt or smaller.
So that's the basic concept from TSA. Here's how I've applied it based upon my experience with the airlines.
PACKING THE GUN:
I find a good case. Some use Pelican, Storm, etc. I just use one of my gun cases. Works fine, is flatter than other others, and I already own it.
I break the gun down. This is not required by TSA, but I do it anyway. This is from experience. When you declare your firearm, you are now at the mercy of the agent. They may be experienced with handguns, they may be completely unfamiliar with them, or they may be card carrying brady bunch members. You don't know. I've had them take the empty gun, pick it up for everyone behind me to see, wrinkle their brow while they stare at it, cover me, God, and everyone else with the muzzle, and then ask if I'm sure it's unloaded. So I just break it down. It makes it much less threatening. It makes it easy to see what's in it (and not in it), and if they pick up one part or another there's no fear of causing a scene.
I put my ammo in the locked case. It's the safest place for it and it makes it simple.
Not pictured, but I also put a filled out ID/Address tag INSIDE the case with the gun, and a copy of the TSA regs, folded so that the title is out and anyone who opens it can see it's there.
I unload my magazines and put them outside the case with the holsters I'll be taking.
Here's what it looks like (for reference, this is just the case that came with my M&P9c... I previously used an XD case):
THE MAGS, HOLSTER, AND GUN CASE:
I pack the UNLOADED mags and holster separately from the locked gun case. I put them in a shoe bag that fits next to the firearm case in the suitcase.
On the front of the gun case I put a strip of duct tape and in bold black sharpie I put my name, address, cell phone number, and email address. I've blotched it out of these pictures but you can see where I put it.
On the back of the case I put the same info, as well as a warning that tampering will be prosecuted. This is a simple thing, not necessary, but I want anyone who might think about taking this case to know I will hunt them down.
Finally, I put a combination pad lock on the gun case. There is a reason for this. But a keyed lock is fine, too. TSA is NOT allowed to have a copy of your combo or key that goes on the gun case. I put a combo so, if one of them tries to say, "We need to check it again, just give me the combo" I can say, "I'm sorry, sir, but I'm the only one allowed to have it. And Further, it's my pin number so for security purposes I cannot give it out." That is why I do it, and it's been 100% fool proof to date.
And that's what I will put into the larger bag. I put the gun case, locked with a combo lock, and an unassuming shoe bag that has my mags and holsters.
*******CONTINUED IN NEXT POST********
SECURING THE GUN CASE INSIDE MY LUGGAGE:
Now, here is the step I add that most do not. I decided some time ago that I wanted to make it difficult for an employee to take my whizz-bang 99. If they are going to do it, it needs to slow them down, cost them time, and be obvious to the cameras and their employer what they are doing. Is it foolproof? Nope. Nothing is, and I'm sorry about that. But it has been fine for me. I've never even had it tampered with.
So here's the trick. Most rolling suitcases have a handle that is made of aluminum, steel, or titanium (with ultra high end luggage). But regardless of the material, they are pretty sturdy. And that handle connects all the way down the back of the suitcase, creating a "spine" to the bag. I make a small incision through the lining and padding in the bottom of the bag so that I can put a 1'' cable (lots of materials for a good cable, but generally steel) around that post (or both posts, if you want) to secure the gun case. If they wanted to take that case, they would absolutely have to take everything out of the bag and destroy it, or cut it. Now TSA does cut locks off, and I've heard different stories about what kind of cutters they have quick access to... but in general the smaller, more common cutters will take a few passes with a 1'' cable. Larger cutters will cut right through any cable, and in that case you may want a good chain. But for me, the cable has been more than fine. Further, an employee will have to have the larger cutter, put at the INSIDE of the bag, with the bag fully open to do this. While it's not perfect, it's a lot more trouble and will draw much more attention than a common thief would take with all of their coworkers around and the internal security cameras on.
Here's the cable looped under. Very little disturbance to the bag.
I simply keep the cable coiled (it's tougher than you think to uncoil it, and especially under all my stuff, that's just what I want someone to be up against).
Then I put a good padlock that is harder to cut. Again, if they're going to do it, they can't use the little shears. And with the small bolt showing on this model lock (on of my favorites), they'd have to move stuff and be obvious to get to it.
This is allowed for two reasons. One, it does not actually lock anything they can't have access to. You can still move a coil or two and fully open the gun case for inspection if you want. But second, if it DOES prevent access to anything, it's the gun case. And YOU ARE ALLOWED TO BE THE ONLY ONE with access to your gun case. What it really does is make it much harder and more obvious if an employee wants your firearm.
Here's what it all looks like, fully secured and with the shoe bag with the holster and mags next to it:
Here's how much room it takes up in the bag. PLENTY of room left.
And finally, I lock the outside zippers with two TSA approved crappy little locks. I use the $10 set that has the red and green lights that tell you if TSA has opened them or not. As wimpy as those locks are, it's still a step that must be taken to access your stuff inside, and the color of the lock will show if they did. TSA locks still get cut sometimes, if they can't get the master key from a supervisor, etc, but it's pretty rare in my experience. Especially if you go through secondary screening with your case (a simple step, outlined in the next section.)
NOTE: This is the system I've worked out for my hard luggage. I'm working on trying some things with my soft luggage that doesn't have the handle/spine. Sometimes I travel with a Maxpedition duffel. Really good construction. To date, the best idea I've tried out is to loop the cable through a few t shirts and a few pairs of underwear (including a bright colored pair of my wife's "sexy" ones--will catch eyes all over the room instantly if someone was walking around with those showing). That way, if someone takes out the gun case, they've got this gaudy string of clothes attached to the line with it. It will stand out and be memorable for a camera or coworkers watching it. They do make some cable locks that have a 120db alarm, so if the cable is cut it sounds the alarm. I've considered that as well. I'm always looking for soft luggage ideas...
*******CONTINUED IN NEXT POST********
B. CHECKING YOUR BAG AT THE AIRLINE
So you get it all packed and secured and you get to the airport. Here's where the list begins.
1. Be early. Please. If you're going to fly with the firearm, be early. I've never had it add more than 30 minutes to the whole process for me, but you want to give it even more than that in case you have to go through an extra security verification or two.
2. Go to the counter. You cannot use a skycap. You must declare with an agent. If you check in at the curb and then tell them you have a firearm, they may hustle you right to the front of the line. I've also had them get mad when I tried that and put me at the back and waste more of my time.
Special Note: I want to say this before we get to #3. The system I've worked out is very general, but it flies with almost every US airline I've flown on. In fact, I've had no problems. That's why I use original box for ammo and lock it down, etc. From airline to airline, they may have specific regs that TSA does not. TSA will let you cover your loaded mags. North West Airlines doesn't. Some want original ammo box, some don't . So instead of jumping through all the hoops for one airline or another, I just decided to get ONE system down and stick to it. So while you may be able to do some things a little different here and there--and I am not suggesting you cannot--I am only giving you my system that I've found to be less complex.
3. When I get to the counter, I pull out my driver's license, passport, copy of my itinerary (if I have it), a copy of the TSA firearm regs, and a copy of the airline's firearm regs.
I hand them to the agent and say, in a calm and slow tone, "Good morning. I'd like to declare that I will be carrying a legal firearm in my checked luggage, prepared to TSA and your airline's packing standards, and it's disassembled and ready for your inspection."
The combination of this formal and polite declaration, along with all the paperwork has been GOLD for me. Better, actually. Before there was always some hesitation or confusion on their part. But by giving them all the paperwork, by being formal and gracious, I've cut out more than 90% of the hustle I used to face while checking in. They seem to appreciate the preparedness, the organization, and the willingness for their inspection. You can say whatever you like, but I don't recommend walking up and simply saying that you have a gun (something I've seen happen before). I've just given you 100% check in gold, and if you ever do that and compare it you'll realize what great approach it is. Do as you will.
4. The agent will inspect the firearm. The more dissembled it is, the easier that will be. The more it looks like a "gun", the bigger the chance you have of a brady card carrier stalling you, arguing with you about how it's packed, etc. In general, if you have any real delays or issues, just calmly say, "Could I please have your supervisor inspect it, reference the TSA standards I provided for you, and help us all to get out of here in a timely manner?" I've only had to do that once, ever. I don't know if that's typical or lucky. But that's what led to my script and document presentation.
5. The agent IS NOT PERMITTED to mark the outside of the luggage with any sort of special tag showing there is a firearm inside. This is a big deal. This is what will keep your bag from becoming a target. If they try, just let them know that the tag must be inside of the bag. If they argue, get a supervisor. You generally won't have to fight this one, unless you're flying out of DC, San Francisco, NYC, etc.
6. At this point, they'll usually let you go. About every other time they'll take me to secondary screening which is around the corner, in a different room, etc. They'll have me unlock the case, they'll look, have me lock it back, send it through a screening machine, and that's it. Never had any problem there, and I prefer it actually because it's not being handled by the check in agents too much or anything.
C. THINGS I'VE HAD GO WRONG:
Not much to mention here, but just to give you all the info I can I'll give you my few stories.
1. Before I started disassembling the gun, I had agents pick it up, sweep me and everyone in line with the muzzle, and generally start a buzzing behind me that was followed by accusing looks when I saw these folks on the plane. Not worth it. Had all this happen a few times, and while it was a headache, it wasn't enough to discourage me from traveling with my gun--but it was enough to inspire me to just disassemble the thing when I pack it.
2. I had one female check in agent argue with me about every little thing. She was clearly a brady card carrier who said things like, "that thing", and "that deadly weapon" when she talked about the firearm. First I wasn't allowed to fly with ANY ammo. Then it was that I had to give her the combo to the lock. Then it was that I had to have a firearm tag on the outside of the luggage. It just went on and on until I got a supervisor, he got a copy of the regs, and we all went our way. That's why I take copies of the regs with me, put them in the case, and put them in the handle of the gun case after I lock it into my bag. And that's why I disassemble the gun in the case, and that's why I use a gracious and professional script.
3. One time in Denver International I was called down to a holding area after I had been at my gate for a while. They needed me to open it again and inspect. Not sure why. Took 15 minutes total, from leaving my seat at the gate to returning to that seat, and everyone was really polite and apologetic about it all. At least I knew my bag was under the plane and hadn't missed the connection.
And that's it. No other troubles.
Feel free to add your own comments, stories, etc. You may do things very, very different and that is fine. I'm simply detailing my system and experience for those who are curious or who don't take their CCW with them when they travel because they're worried about the whole airport process. I know this system works for me, and so I have hope it will work for you as well.
It's really as simple as:
1. Secure the firearm in a locked case, according to regs.
2. Secure that locked case within your bag as possible.
3. Upon check-in properly declare your firearm and submit to inspections.
But as you know, there's always a little more to it than that. I do feel it's important to not go unarmed just because of the expectation of airport hustling. With luck, and the more of us that fly with our firearms, the easier it will become.
very nicely detailed. thanks!
To add :)
Some airlines require you to check the ammo in a separate bag.
Nicely done. I don't fly very often, but this is good information to know about. Thanks.
I fly all the time with my weapons checked - do most of the things you suggest, but have a whole new list of time-saving things to do now - thanks.
Out of all your suggestions, I love the idea of cable-locking the padlocked weapon(s) case to the inside of the luggage the best!
I was under the impression that you had to have your ammo packed in a separate case from the weapon(s)? I fly mostly on Continental - maybe it's just their rule - but I do so anyway.
Edit: 'Drew beat me to the ammo question
But that's my experience. YMMV may vary.
Here's continental's regs on Ammo:
No more than 11 pounds of ammunition may be carried. The ammunition may be packed in the same container as the firearm or in a separate container. Ammunition must be packed in the manufacturer's original package or securely packed in fiber, wood or metal containers. The ammunition inside the container must be protected against shock and secured against movement. The ammunition may be packed in the same container as the firearm or in a separate container.
SOURCE: under "firearms".
And here's the NRA's quick page to the airline's regs. All seem to be fine with ammo in the same case, and if anything seem to prefer it locked with it.
Thanks for the info.
When you stop and think about it for a minute - the gun is in checked luggage. There is no way a passenger could find the bag while in flight and get to the gun. All the precautions are really a waste of time.
Thanks so much for taking the time to put this down in a post. GREAT info.
Correct sir. Feds are more concerned with unsavory folks who might have access to your bags than they are with you gaining access to your bags in flight.
I carry out of Houston on Continental all the time. Normally a flawless procedure. One time, however, the counter girl asked to see my CHL. I told her I didn't have one. She looked like she was going to press the hidden bank robber buzzer or something. It was pretty funny. Basically I'm not showing that bimbo my CHL.
I might add that I travel with a Pelican case with some scientific analyzers in it. I have a place cut out in the bottom foam under one of the instruments where the handgun goes. The ammo goes in my main bag. I lock up the pelican case (about the size of a large briefcase) and it sails thru every time.
EDIT: sorry, i read Rounds instead of Pounds haha
I fly with my handgun pretty often. Almost never a problem (my line at the counter is to smile and softly say to the clerk, "I'd like to declare an UNLOADED handgun."). Anyway, flying out of San Diego one time the clerk had me leave the gun container unlocked for checking with TSA. Luggage disappeared down the moving conveyer belt. Next time I saw my luggage was in Boston. All was OK but the damn gun bag was STILL UNLOCKED!! :steamed:
Delta TRIED the same thing with me coming out of O'Hare, but I INSISTED "that wasn't going to fly (pun intended)"! They backed down and I got to lock it again before losing sight of it and my bag on the conveyor.
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