Air Travel with a Firearm
If you plan on flying with a firearm on a commercial airline, you must follow the TSA guidelines.
Any firearm you travel with must be unloaded and locked inside a “hard-sided container” that prevents outside access when it is locked. You can use any lock you’d like, but according to the TSA webpage, you must maintain possession of the key unless “TSA personnel requests the key to open the firearm container.” Whether the case is small enough to be placed inside another piece of luggage or the case is the luggage, it needs to be declared and checked.
Something else to be aware of (and this can be confusing for a traveler who reads the regulations and thinks “but wait, I thought I was supposed to not give up my key”) is that certain airports (Cincinnati/CVG, for instance) have placed their firearms screening area behind security. So, if for some reason the TSA needs to inspect the contents of your case and you are not using TSA-approved locks, you may be asked by non-TSA personnel to give up sole control of your key so that they can take it to TSA. To be clear, you may use any lock you like, and there are some security concerns with TSA-approved locks.
There is more than one airport that essentially forces you to temporarily give up your key if 1) the TSA selects your bag for additional screening, and 2) you are not using TSA-approved locks. So don’t be surprised if you find yourself in that situation. Some places will allow you to request a TSA agent come to the counter to get your key if you’re not comfortable giving it to airline personnel, but there is no guarantee that this option exists at all airports.
Ammunition needs to be “packaged” in a container “specifically designed to carry ammunition” safely. The factory packaging generally works well for this, but aftermarket solutions are also fine so long as the ammunition is not loose in your luggage or gun case. Any ammunition you travel with must be declared in a checked bag. Though it doesn’t have to be locked in the same case as your firearm, it’s not a bad idea to do so if your case has the room for it.
While the TSA allows for magazines to be loaded so long as they “completely enclose” whatever ammunition is in them, more than one air carrier prohibits this practice. As far as the magazines themselves go, even if they are empty, they must also be declared and in a container inside a checked bag.
When you make it to the check-in counter, let them know that you need to declare a firearm, and they will walk you through the check-in process. The ticketing agent will fill out an “unloaded firearm(s)” form for you to sign and date. Many times, the agent will want to ensure that the gun is unloaded, though in practice this often entails them simply asking you if it is unloaded. After you sign the form, they will direct you to place it in the case containing the firearm(s) and have you lock it in their presence.
Depending on the airport, they will either have you escort the case to a special TSA screening area or have you wait in a designated area while the case is going through the screening process. Once your checked bag containing your firearm(s) has cleared security, the rest of the pre-flight process is standard.
You must also know that all firearms, ammunition, firearm parts, magazines, bolts, firing pins, and replicas of firearms (including toys) must be in checked baggage. What can go in your carry-on? A rifle scope.
Before your trip, contact your specific airline(s) and ask what requirements they have for transporting firearms and if they have any additional restrictions beyond the TSA requirements. Make sure you arrive at the airport with plenty of time to go through the TSA declaration process.
Keep in mind if you do not follow these strict requirements, you could be subject to state criminal prosecution (a hefty fine and potential prison time) AND a civil fine of up to $10,000 per violation by the TSA.
As a reminder, you must always follow the laws of the state you are in. Flying into an airport is no exception. Practice extreme caution if your flight is diverted and lands in a gun-hostile state or in a state that does not recognize your license or permit to carry a handgun. When in doubt, do not take possession of your luggage. Above all, always check the local laws before taking possession of your firearm or attempting to carry.
What if I Only Take Trains or Buses?
It is possible to travel across state lines via train with a firearm, but it’s important to note that you need to check with your carrier(s) to see what their rules are. Some providers might require you to provide 24-hour notice via phone if you will be traveling with your firearm and arrive at least 30 minutes early to check your bags, and some providers will not allow a person to carry firearms on board. Some carriers do not want firearms at all—whether the item is carried or it’s unloaded, locked, and in checked baggage.
If you prefer to travel by bus, legally traveling with a firearm across state lines isn’t going to be an option. All the major bus lines appear to have an outright ban on firearms carried on-body, in a carry-on bag, and even in checked baggage.
Keep in mind these rules and restrictions apply to interstate travel. Some states have it written into state law that passengers may carry firearms on public transportation inside the state. For instance, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) specifically notes on their website that state law allows passengers who meet the requirements to go armed on their buses, trains, and properties.
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