With the pandemic slowly drawing to a close and a return to normalcy appearing on the horizon, it’s safe to assume Americans will be traveling more in 2021 than in 2020. And whether you’re new to guns or have been shooting your entire life, it’s important to remember there are very specific rules in place if you decide to travel by air with your firearm. While this may seem like common sense to some, evidence suggests that quite a few people haven’t gotten the memo, given how frequently the TSA discovers firearms and other restricted items in passengers’ carry-on bags.

Will I get Stopped if I Carry A Gun in an Airport?

High-profile incidents of people attempting to carry guns through TSA security, including a notoriously anti-gun Chicago politician, a Florida Congressman, and an Iowa State Senator, underscore a more significant issue at hand: some people are failing to keep track of their guns. And while this article focuses specifically on firearms, the TSA finds all sorts of strange things at security checkpoints, including a python in a hard drive, fake bombs, an inert mortar round, wedding-themed fake hand grenades, and a live cat. While these incidents seem to defy common sense, it underscores a point Psychology Today made nearly a decade ago that “Common Sense Is Neither Common nor Sense.” With that in mind, it’s a good idea to become familiar with the rules of traveling by air with a firearm.

The Rules

According to the TSA website:

You may transport unloaded firearms in a locked hard-sided container as checked baggage only. Declare the firearm and/or ammunition to the airline when checking your bag at the ticket counter. The container must completely secure the firearm from being accessed. Locked cases that can be easily opened are not permitted. Be aware that the container the firearm was in when purchased may not adequately secure the firearm when it is transported in checked baggage.

This means if you’re going to travel with a firearm, it needs to be in a hard-sided case that you can lock. If the case you happen to be securing your firearm in is small enough to fit inside a larger soft-sided checked bag, that is acceptable as long as you declare it. It’s also important to remember that ANY firearm parts aside from rifle scopes are prohibited in carry-on bags and need to be checked. What about inert training aids like airsoft guns, SIRT pistols, or Blueguns? You need to check those as well, though it’s a bit unclear as to whether you need to declare their presence at check-in. When in doubt, verify with your airline. It’s also important to note that the TSA has very specific guidelines for traveling with any type of defensive spray, and all sprays are prohibited from anything other than checked bags. Confusing the issue even more is the fact many airlines may have their own limitations and procedures to follow in addition to federal TSA regulations.

The Penalties

Mistakes while traveling by air can be costly, and you could face both civil and criminal charges. Per the TSA website: “… local and state governments, and other countries, may have their own rules on firearm possession or transportation. As a result, prohibited items may result in both a TSA civil enforcement action and a criminal enforcement action.” The TSA “may impose civil penalties of up to $13,910 per violation per person,” and repeat violations have even higher penalties. Anecdotally, it appears that quite a few of these instances are left to the discretion of the responding law enforcement as well as the TSA investigators.

Best Practices

Whether you travel by air all the time or this is your very first flight, it’s important to have a robust procedure in place for traveling with any type of firearm or self-defense accessory so you can avoid problems once you get to the airport. Most issues seem to stem from travelers’ ignorance of the regulations in place for people flying with firearms, ammunition, and firearms/self-defense accessories. It is crucial to do your own research and familiarize yourself with all the guidelines surrounding the transportation of those items.

One tactic we recommend is to have a separate set of bags and luggage that you use strictly for air travel. By keeping an entirely “sterile” set of luggage that is NEVER used for quick trips to the range or as part of your EDC setup, you’ll remove the possibility of forgetting about a prohibited item in a rarely used pocket of a backpack or bag.

If keeping a sterile set of bags for air travel isn’t something you’re able to do, make sure you completely empty and inspect each bag you plan to travel with before you start packing for your trip. Following these simple guidelines can help you avoid making a mistake that lands you in hot water and on the local news.

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