How To Check Firearms in Airline Luggage

How To Check Firearms in Airline Luggage…Along with Some Personal Insights.

By Gun Shows Today Staff. After September 11, 2001, every facet of airline transportation and operation was examined. In the process, some of the ambiguity of flying with firearms was clarified. Any person who desires to fly with firearms in checked baggage should carefully study the TSA and airline’s most current rules, regulations and policies just prior to departure.

Each and every rule and regulation must be followed. There are several general, universal requirements a passenger must follow in every check-in associated with passenger flight:

1) Unload the Firearm.

First, and perhaps unsaid, is that the firearm must be unloaded. Point the gun in a safe direction and check to see that it is unloaded. Re-check manually (finger in the chamber) and visually. The last thing you want to happen is for the “unloaded” firearm to kill an unintended victim. For instance, dropping the magazine in an auto-pistol does not extract the chambered round.

2) Declare the Firearm.

At the first point to do so, the firearm must be declared to the airline. In the hustle and bussell of modern-day airports, this is easy to forget. In other words, lawfully checking a firearm, only to then have the carry gun discovered when entering the controlled point (i.e., TSA check) at the airport brings about other significant state or federal criminal liabilities. A good way to avoid such mistakes is to think through your clothing from head to toe, each and every time you arrive at the airport.

I do this effectively by patting down areas of my body where I routinely carry a firearm. I check my ankle for my trusty Galco ankle holster in which I carry my scandium 357 S&W revolver. I pat and rummage my pocket where I sometimes carry a back up NAA 22 mag mini-revolver and my belt Glock 17 (or custom Commander in .38 Super) in a BladeTech holster.

Then I head to security.

A related consideration goes for carry on luggage, which for avid shooters, may have an errant bullet, knife or otherwise prohibited item contained within it. In this light, I never utilize range luggage or bags or apparel in flying. This “shooting” clothing and baggage is stored in a separate home closet and never intermixed. This is especially necessary if you use the exact same baggage for range and travel.

In both, I routinely use a non-descript Eagle Air Crew E&E bag for a carry on because of its marvelous mesh zippered compartments that are easy to access in flight. I straddle it in tight seating and can open it without the contents spilling out. Where the carry on items are more clothing, I often substitute a London Bridge three day pack, along with a Pelican 20″ roll on. I also use the same (but duplicates) for range and shooting activities. So I have two (2) or more of each, which is a small price to pay when looking at a violation of state or federal criminal law.

For those of you who prepare for everything “just in case”, this is even more important because I carry-on everything I would have to have for any trip (except perhaps a gun on a hunting trip), assuming I will never see my checked luggage when I reach my destination.

3) Transport in Hard-Sided Case.

Turning to the specifics of a hard-sided case for weapons, TSA has several recommendations. My personal opinion is the best choice is a Pelican Case. They have pressure relief valves, good sturdy locking ports, and, frankly, outstanding customer service if you would have a problem, such as a broken latch. Pelican cases are nearly indestructible and have a number of ways to configure them to ensure minimal force applied to the firearms.

Everything seems to have a trade off, and with Pelican it is the weight of the case relative to overall airline allowance. Most lawfully possessed firearms can be shipped this way. International travel or transportation of NFA weapons requires additional forms and advanced planning. However, there are limits, including amount of ammunition that can be shipped.

4) Lock the Container and Keep the Key.

As the rules stand presently, TSA directs the passenger to maintain the key to the lock, and if they desire to inspect the locked parcel, they will contact you. Airlines are pretty good in telling a passenger where to wait until this determination is made. If you cannot be located, the luggage containing the firearm will not be transported.

I advocate a well-made lock. Most of the TSA pass-key locks can easily be overridden and have little actual power to secure contents. Further, the brutal facts are firearms are sometimes stolen by TSA members or otherwise go missing in checked baggage. Insurance for the firearms is also a good idea.
Note: Under federal law, it is illegal to flag a bag as containing a firearm. Nevertheless, it has occurred in the past.

An important legal right that you must understand is that federal law allows interstate transportation, including in checked baggage, of a firearm from any lawful place to any other place it would be lawful to do so. In New York (in the not to distant past), passengers with checked firearms are detained and threatened with confiscation of the firearms or arrest.

5) Keep the Ammunition in Separate Hard Box.

Ammunition must be kept in a separate container and in a limited quantity. Ammo may be kept in the same locked container as the firearm. A factory cardboard box, in which it was shipped by the manufacturer, is generally preferred and clearly marked as to what it contains. Ammunition, however, is heavy and it may well be cheaper to purchase at the destination if it is just for routine shooting.

With precision rifles, African big-game calibers, or anything outside of standards, checking it with luggage may be required for accuracy, regulation, or availability.

These five considerations, along with some of my personal insight as a frequent flyer with firearms, should aid in your education about the process in order to make a meaningful decision if the benefit is worth the risk.

Attorney Bryan Ciyou is a frequent writer, advisor, consultant and lecturer on firearms legal issues to industry, attorneys, and handles such cases in private practice as a principal with Ciyou & Dixon, P.C., in Indianapolis, Indiana. Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice, as it is for educational purposes only. Nor should be deemed a solicitation for legal services or practice beyond our bar admissions.