Pack Heat to Protect Valuables from Airline Theft

Bruce Schneier advocates packing a pistol or a starter pistol in luggage which contains expensive items such as cameras so that the TSA pay special attention to it …

A “weapons” is defined as a rifle, shotgun, pistol, airgun, and STARTER PISTOL. Yes, starter pistols – those little guns that fire blanks at track and swim meets – are considered weapons…and do NOT have to be registered in any state in the United States.

I have a starter pistol for all my cases. All I have to do upon check-in is tell the airline ticket agent that I have a weapon to declare…I’m given a little card to sign, the card is put in the case, the case is given to a TSA official who takes my key and locks the case, and gives my key back to me.

That’s the procedure. The case is extra-tracked…TSA does not want to lose a weapons case. This reduces the chance of the case being lost to virtually zero.

It’s a great way to travel with camera gear…I’ve been doing this since Dec 2001 and have had no problems whatsoever.

Starter pistols can be bought for around $50 but if you packed a toy cap gun and called it a starter pistol the TSA would be none the wiser.

[Hat Tip: Life Hacker]

Steve Johnson

Founder and Dictator-In-Chief of TFB. A passionate gun owner, a shooting enthusiast and totally tacti-uncool. Favorite first date location: any gun range. Steve can be contacted here.


  • SpudGun

    That’s all fine and dandy until there’s a terrorist incident on your flight and then guess who get’s picked up by the FBI and held without a lawyer for a month?

    Even though you are totally innocent, your picture will get flashed up on CNN, the press will try and find any shred of evidence to make you look like a murderer and your family, friends and co-workers will all be questioned by the authorities.

    All this so you don’t lose a camera bag. I think I’ll stick to travel insurance.

  • Attila

    I heard about this a year ago from a hacker who goes by Deviant Ollam. He posted a complete how-to on Vimeo.

    One point of contention. Schneier says that “a TSA official … takes my key and locks the case, and gives my key back to me.” The TSA says, “We recommend that you provide the key or combination to the security officer if he or she needs to open the container. You should remain in the area designated by the aircraft operator or TSA representative to take the key back after the container is cleared for transportation.”

    I wouldn’t let any airline or TSA personnel take possession of my key or worse, tell him my combination. Simply stay in the area and make sure your bag clears the scan.

  • Sian

    @attila Sometimes that sadly isn’t possible. The account on Deviant Ollam’s website from TJ flying out of San Jose CA was mine. Some airports have no regard for federal regulations, and do not have a publicly accessible baggage screening area.

  • Petey

    This is silly. I had a baggage handler (allegedly) steal a Taurus out of my bag a few years ago and TSA did nothing but shit their pants afterwards. The won’t think twice about improving tracking of your bag just, because your packin.

  • c. trapp

    If you use (required) TSA- approved “locks” on your luggage, no key or combination is required to open them so this significantly improves the security of your luggage.

  • rubbershotgun


    considering that we have millions of successful and incident free flights for every 1 flight that has had something terrorist related go wrong, id safely say that the statistics are on our side.

  • Trango

    This has to be one of the dumbest ideas I have heard in a while.

    I agree with SpudGun, you do this on the wrong flight on the wrong day and you can kiss your civil liberties goodbye.

    Insure your stuff, lock it up, and monitor it as much as you can.

  • mmathers

    I’ve never flown with a starter pistol before but I have taken actual firearms with me.
    1) Factor in an extra 20 minutes at checkin for TSA to find the extra special TSA agent who can confirm your gun is unloaded. From my experience, it took this long in austin for them to find the one guy who could confirm the gun was unloaded so if you are flying through a region which might not be as gun friendly, imagine how much longer this process could take.

    2) Your gun needs to be locked in a locked hard cased container. This can be a hard case inside your soft luggage or a big hard cased crate. You can’t just throw the pistol into the soft sided luggage with your camera (or whatever you want to track) and call it a day.

    IMO, this is kind of a pain in the butt just to insure that your stuff isn’t stolen. This is not even a guarantee that the clowns won’t manhandle your stuff like they do everything else. Of course, if I travelled with $20K worth of professional camera equipment, I might reconsider this position. Even then, my first preference would be just to carry that stuff onboard.


  • AB

    Spuddy, I really like yor comments most of the time but this time, your eyes are kinda brown. There are those of us that travel with a few thousand in tools, special equipment and other custom made systems that if we lost them, the work could not be done.

    If my picture gets flashed on the boobtube, even better. Free advertising and facetime with a cute news anchor. The FBI has to play ball these days, people aren’t going to be very nice about being held incommunicado, especially if one has a will to do violence during an improper arrest procedure by a junior agent with a big ego and no common sense.

    Really though, never give up your key, never give up your combination and make the TSA and baggage folks realize that if they screw with your gear, it’s Federal Time for all involved.

  • komrad

    Too much inconvenience for too little gain. It just seems kinda wrong too. Why bother them with giving special care to a bag that doesn’t need it?

  • Sian

    BTW, there is no extra tracking (or there shouldn’t be) of luggage with declared firearms, per FAA rules. Lifehacker is really spreading the poorly-researched BS today. That said, they WILL notice the huge non-TSA compliant locks and know something’s up, but you can bet they won’t be opened without them asking you first.

  • Fred Bastiat

    I love the slave speak today, “oh don’t bring a gun the government will think you are a terrorist”. I fly with a gun 50% of the time I fly depending on where I’m going. I am an American for Pete’s sake, not a North Korean peasant.

    This theory kind of sucks though because the TSA has lost a rifle on me twice only to have it show up a day or two later. That’s in a jumbo plastic case that screams “GUN!”, too.

  • Wow… it’s quite interesting to see all this reaction to a concept that i’ve been publicizing for some time now. The comments really run the gamut, don’t they?

    In the interest of clarifying some misinformation, i’ll post a few specific responses here…

    Spudgun expressed concern that if there is a problem on your flight, somehow people will “think you’re a terrorist” if you have a firearm in your luggage. Trango agreeing with Spudgun, saying that the loss of civil liberties isn’t worth the extra security that this offers.

    I would submit that the greater loss of liberties takes place when people start fearing their own government to the point that they would not care to take their own firearms anywhere they are traveling.

    Attila, thank you for the mention of my site and my presentation. It is my hope that the facts available there, particularly the accounts that armed air travelers send me (which i then post) can prepare travelers in a way that makes their flying experience very smooth, even with firearms.

    speaking of air traveler accounts, thank you to Sian for submitting a great and detailed report to me. best of luck on your future travels, as well.

    c trapp tells people to “use TSA locks” and asserts that this somehow makes the process better. sadly, that is not the case. the TSA locks are all master-keyed and the keys are out there in the wild. beyond that, the locks are all utter crap and offer no real protection. if you are just hoping to prevent a low-life from quickly rummaging through your bag while it passes by on a belt, that’s one thing. but if you are traveling with genuinely expensive gear, it’s not a good idea.

    also, TSA locks are NOT acceptable or allowed for flying with firearms.

    mmathers expressed concern over the “extra time” that this can introduce into the process of checking-in and also worries about people who might “mishandle” the luggage. i would respond to this by asserting that nearly ALL such problems that concern travelers can be prevented by simply flying “properly” as i would say.

    in so many words, one should EXPECT some delay during check-in or passenger screening and rough handling of luggage. getting to the airport early and packing luggage properly will eliminate 99.9% of the trouble you will ever have. occasionally adding five to ten minutes to your check-in (which is NOT the norm, in my experience… it’s super smooth for me all the time*) means you have an hour and twenty minutes until you board, as opposed to an hour and a half.

    luggage will get thrown around, slammed, squashed, etc etc etc. that’s just part of air travel. traveling with firearms helps you out because it /requires/ that you pack in a very rugged, very secure manner.

    komard made similar comments about worrying that this takes “too much time” and asserts that people who travel with firearms are expecting “special care” which they do not deserve. honestly, i cannot think of greater nonsense. again, this doesn’t add much (if any) time to your journey* and i would assert that being able to lock your bag when flying isn’t a “special” protection… it’s something that should be the NORM when ANYONE travels. ๐Ÿ™‚

    i’ll close by thanking Fred for his utterly amazing comment, “I am an American for Peteโ€™s sake, not a North Korean peasant.”

    that’s utterly fabulous and i want to add that to future occasions when i give my Flying With Firearms presentation. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • * NOTE – to follow-up to my assertions of time, delays, etc…

    each airport and each airline is a little bit different. i happen to never experience any significant delays because i fly almost exclusively on US Air (whose firearms policies are outstanding) and because PHL airport is my home base, and their firearm check-in process (particularly in the B/C terminals for US Air) is second-to-none.

    i absolutely sail through every time, especially when i’m there but also in other airports, too.

    not all travelers have the same experience. some airports are designed badly and some staff are poorly trained. by checking out the Air Traveler Accounts section in this portion of my web site, you can come to learn which airport and which airlines are smoother than others…

    if you fly with firearms, please tell me how it goes for you…

    … and i’ll post your account for others to read and learn.

  • Jw

    Wow, this is completely flawed logic. Traveling with a firearm in your checked baggage does not make it less likely that your bag will be lost. The airlines are not allowed to indicate in any way on the bag itself that it contains a firearm. The only “special” treatment you bag gets is the extra going over you get from the TSA, once it hits the belt it’s just like any other bag. Anyone that thinks it does can talk to the 4 competitive shooters in the last 3 or so years that I know have had firearms lost while traveling on various airlines. One pro shooter lost close to $10k in guns in the form of an custom AR, custom semi-auto shotty, and custom built open division pistol (as well as ammo). About 3 years ago all that stuff was loose in the under belly of O’Hare airport in Chicago never to be seen again.

    What I do when I travel to a match is make it so they have to spend a lot of time getting the guns out or take the whole damn piece of luggage. I have a modded hard case that goes inside a big piece of roller luggage. It’s modded so I can run cable locks thru the guns out of the hard case and then attached to the inside of the luggage then finally lock the hard case. It’s not complex but looks complex enough that the TSA folks always ask me to remove the pistols for inspection. Hopefully any average dope that opens the luggage will think it’s too big a pain in the ass to mess with but nothing is 100%.

  • Trango78

    @Deviant Ollam….

    Okay, maybe you are right in that we shouldn’t be so paranoid of our own government and the repercussions from following “legal” procedures when attempting to secure the safety of our own property. Such a mindset is very dangerous as we are willingly turning our freedoms, without challenge, over to an authoritarian state. Still, I think the concept you propose has its pitfalls. To tell Americans that they need to keep a cap gun in their luggage and declare it as a real gun just to keep some valuables safe, sends an equally irresponsible message.

    If you are so worried about airline personnel, TSA personnel especially, stealing your property that you are including a fake gun to flag your luggage, and subsequently you, that’s your prerogative. If this fear is genuinely shared by a majority of Americans, then we have some bigger issues to address. I speculate however that most Americans aren’t nearly as concerned about this issue that they are willing to take such dramatic steps, and are OK with simply insuring their high dollar valuables. This is mere speculation however. Maybe more research on this topic needs to be conducted??

    On its face however, for me, this is using the mirage of a real firearm to cater to a case of paranoia. And I think that it is playing with fire. Firearms are to be respected and protected, especially in our current political environment. They should not to be used as props to protect your $5,000 Nikon.

  • Trango78

    Trango78 and Trango = same person. Sometimes I forget which I use here. Is 32 too young for Alzheimer’s?

  • Trango… perhaps i should have clarified a bit (and those linking to my site and the reports and accounts there would have noted this, but you are right… it wasn’t expressed clearly here)

    90% of the time, I do not fly with starter pistols or flare guns. I fly with proper firearms. I encourage others to do the same.

    The “flare gun trick” is more of a last-resort for people who are too squeamish to deal with having actual firearms as part of their daily life. It’s all a bit counter-intuitive for me, given that most folk who truly understand and value security tend to also be gun people.

  • SpudGun

    I’m in danger of taking this subject off topic (as usual) but –

    When it comes to civil liberties and airport security, it is the very definition of ‘guilty until proven innocent’ and you can yell ‘I’m an American, I have my rights!’ as much as you want as the cops drag you out of the line, but they’re still gonna drag you out of the line and hold you on circumstantial evidence.

    So you’ll forgive me if I don’t embrace the free travel insurance from the TSA, but anything that is going to maximize my profile to the authorities is a non-starter. Yes, I sound extremely paranoid, but not as paranoid as airport security or the yahoos at Homeland.

    If it works for you, then great, go for it, but I’ll give it a miss thank you.

  • Spudgun,

    I can appreciate how we’re treading more towards theories and politics as opposed to hard facts and simple firearm advice… but i think that this is a significant enough conversation and worthy of our time, even as we drift a bit.

    You assert that, “you can yell โ€˜Iโ€™m an American, I have my rights!โ€™ as much as you want as the cops drag you out of the line, but theyโ€™re still gonna drag you out of the line and hold you on circumstantial evidence.”

    This sounds exactly like something i would say… well, something i would have said maybe back when i was 25. ๐Ÿ˜‰ There is a place for paranoia, and i’m NEVER one to push for citizens putting MORE trust into government… but i am given to ask exactly when and where the authorities are swooping in and scooping up citizens in airports, locking them away, etc etc etc.

    This is still America and you don’t have to submit to questions without your consent or searches without probable cause. I’ll acknowledge that there is some potential for an over-zealous bureaucrat to leap on to any easily-accessible fact (such as possession of a firearm in luggage) and try to lean on someone (anyone remember the story of the fellow who dropped a cel phone in an airline toilet… and the hilarious questions from the security man regarding the Dungeons and Dragons material the kid was into?)

    You do mention how “anything that is going to maximize my profile to the authorities is a non-starter.” I can understand what you mean, but i suppose that i feel the potential for harm (in terms of detention, missed flight, etc) is far smaller than the potenial for GOOD that being an armed traveler can offer. I am referring to the good you do when your lifestyle exposes fellow citizens to your firearms. I utterly adore checking-in at the airport and when declaring my firearm at the counter, i pull my carry piece right off my hip, rack out the round in the chamber, and place it all within my luggage right on the scale. I love that citizens who are nearby, also waiting in line, etc. can see that and that it helps to /normalize/ firearm ownership.

    (I touch on this theme towards the end of a piece of mine that appeared on Lew Rockwell’s web site…

    In the end, i respect and admire your closing statement… “If it works for you, then great, go for it, but Iโ€™ll give it a miss thank you.” You and i don’t see perfectly eye-to-eye on this topic but we are quite capable of debating it and discussing it with maturity and respect. Heh, what sort of crybaby nonsense do you think would be seen if a topic like this were voiced on an anti-gun web site? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Best regards, however you choose to fly.

    – dev

    • Respectively disagreeing is, sadly, something lacking on the internet.

  • MrSatyre

    Forget what’s inside the bag…what about what’s on the OUTSIDE???

    I had a custom made baggage tag made of heavy-duty yellow denim with bright red stitching on it that said “Not Yours”. It was my little joke and way of i.d.-ing my bag on the carousel. I attached it to my bag with a short steel cable that went through a metal eye in the tag and around my bag handle. No way that sucker could come off unless it was cut off.

    Guess what happened on my last trip?

  • SpudGun

    Deviant Ollam,

    No problems and I hope you didn’t find my comments too ‘aggresive’ For me, airports are a lot like hospitals – I hate them both because once inside, you are no longer the master of your own destiny and any rights you thought you had are completely dismissed.

    My fear (irrational or otherwise) is that the more information you give the government about your movements with firearms, the more ‘evidence’ can be massed against you. I personally have never been stopped in an airport by security, customs or anyone else, but I still notice the overwhelming atmosphere of paranoia, tension and fear.

    Back on topic, I am still amazed by the number of times I’ve stood at a baggage carousel and seen rifle bags going past, with absolutely no attempt to disguise the contents. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that there are so many trusting people left in the world.

  • Adam Hall

    Can’t you just pack your firearm and like not declare it? I thought just carry on bags were scanned?

  • John Smith

    I was flying into detroit a few years ago and I packed my starter pistol in my checked luggage and it passed through without a problem

  • Sian

    @Adam Hall not unless you want to be arrested and fined up to $10,000. Firearms are among the restricted items that must be declared.

  • jaydee

    Put an undeclared firearm in your checked baggage and the screening done randomly at airports may detect it and then YOU will be checked baggage. There is no advantage to ignoring the rules in this case. A hard side case/lock is not expensive and the procedure is not rocket science

  • dan citizen

    I fly with firearms frequently and have found TSA to be inconsistent to say the least. In the last 4 years I have twice had to argue strongly to prevent and inept airline employee from sending my weapon into the cabin with my carry on luggage. Another two times my weapons popped out of the normal luggage carousel after TSA lost track of them and once by sheer chance I found my case with my AR and 870 along with a separate case containing 45 pounds of ammo sitting unattended next to a closed security station, on the secure side of all the checkpoints, some TSA guy had set them down there and then when the station closed just went home.