[Guest Post] Traveling with a Firearm

[ This guest post was written by Alex from San Antonio. ]

I’m not a frequent flier and luckily I don’t have to fly often. As it is, I dislike airline travel … and I’m thrifty. However, every once in a while my wife forces my hand and demands a vacation outside the Lone Star state. So this year, my family and I planned a vacation to Florida over Spring Break.

We were flying Continental and there was no way we were going to be able to fit everything we needed for a weeklong vacation in three carryon bags. Continental charges $25 for every bag that gets checked. Not too bad, right? Except that you have to come home eventually and it’s another $25 to bring the checked bag back with you. The thrifty in me says, “Screw that! 50 bucks for one bag.” The realist in me says, “$50 for one bag. You know what? I’m going to travel with my handgun because I’m allowed and I may as well do it just for the experience of being able to conceal carry in a state that shares Texas reciprocity.”

My wife says, “Don’t fudge up our vacation with your less than intelligent ideas, sweetie.” (Not exactly what she said, but close enough).

I’ll admit I was a little bit hesitant about flying with a firearm in checked baggage, but it turned out to be a walk in the park. My research begins with visits to the Continental website regarding checked baggage and the TSA website regarding flying with firearms. Fortunately, the Continental requirements were no more stringent that the TSA’s requirements.
The first obstacle I had to overcome was buying a TSA required hard sided case for the firearm. I need a hard sided case that would fit both my son’s and my clothes and my .38 S&W 642. I don’t want to check two bags and pay twice the fees.

Searching for a hard sided case that satisfies both TSA’s and my requirements isn’t easy. First, I don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for a case that’s too small and won’t get used often. Second, I don’t want the case to advertise that it contains something valuable or “gun like”. Third, I want the case to be secure enough to dissuade a dishonest baggage handler from reaching inside and sticking my S&W 642 in his cargo pants pocket. Finally, the case must be light enough so that I’m not exceeding the 50 pound weight limit for checked bags otherwise I have to pay a surcharge.

I decide on a $10 plastic storage bin from Lowes. An easily identifiable and low key 17 gallon black bin with a yellow lid. Though the bin already has several pre-drilled holes for locks, I enlarge four existing holes and create two additional holes. Now the bin will easily accept six ordinary padlocks. Four padlocks are keyed the same and two padlocks are keyed differently than the other four but keyed identical to each other. Hence, I only have to carry two keys for all six locks. The six padlocks do a fantastic job of securing the lid nice and tight. Once locked, I cannot stick a finger under the lid. As per published regulations, the locks must NOT be TSA approved locks. Also, no one is allowed to open my luggage containing a declared firearm unless I am present and the keys must never leave my person.

At a local Target I find a package of five 10 gallon Ziploc bags for less than $6. I place the clothes inside the bags and place the bags in the bin. I place 10 rounds of Hornady personal protection .38’s inside an empty 50 round box of Remington .38’s and then I place both the Remington box and my unloaded S&W in a soft sided pistol case. Into the bin it goes. It’s important that I place the S&W in a soft sided case so that neither the airline agent nor a TSA agent can require me to lock the firearm case separate from my luggage and ask me to check the firearm separately. I don’t want to check two bags and neither do I want to go lock up my S&W in my car at airport parking for a week.

At the airport, I ask the Continental employee for a firearm declarations tag. She asks me to unlock the case so that I can show her the weapon is unloaded. I do so. I place the weapon and the signed firearms tag back in the bin and lock it up. I’m escorted by a Continental employee to the TSA screening area where the TSA is screening all checked baggage. A TSA agent takes the bag from the Continental employee and places it on an X-Ray machine (or whatever the modern equivalent of an X-Ray machine might be). I wait for the bin to come out the other end. The TSA agent gives me a thumbs up, I say, “Thank you.”, and walk back to join my wife and son waiting for me to go through the screening area for boarding. Easy enough. I don’t see my bag again until I pick it up from the luggage carousel in Florida.

Flying home a week later was even easier. I again ask the Continental agent for a firearms declarations tag. I unlock the bin and demonstrate that the gun is unloaded. I place the gun and the tag back in the bin and lock it up. This time, though, the agent places the bin on the belt behind her at the check-in counter and I don’t see it again until I get home to Texas.

I found the journey to be effortless. I neglected to make a hole in the lid wide enough for a checked bag label. But the airline agents were patient and helpful as I shoe horned the label through a hole that was too small. Double check the regulations before you fly with a firearm and I hope your experience turns out as peachy as mine.




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  • Huey148

    “As per published regulations, the locks must NOT be TSA approved locks”

    –please elaborate, this seems odd…

  • DaveTheGreat

    Six padlocks on a plastic bin … If I were a thief, that’s certainly the luggage that would be “lost” on my shift.

    A giant steel rifle case with “THIS IS A HUGE GUN BOX FULL OF GUNS THAT CAN BE USED FOR GUN-STUFF!” stenciled on the side would attract less criminal intention.

    I travel with pistols a lot (and rifles, but that’s pretty hard to hide unless you break them down). A simple hard-shell suitcase from the local thrift store for ten bucks does just fine and attracts no attention. A single padlock secures it. It looks boring, which is the point. And there is no way to open it without breaking the suitcase or cutting the lock, but the suitcase is stronger than a Lowe’s bin and anyone who can cut one lock can cut six.

    The only time I have ever had trouble traveling with a firearm was when I went back to my home state for hunting season, which meant three long guns (scoped bolt-action rifle for corn fields, shotgun for birds, lever-action iron sight rifle for swamp/stalking) and one pistol (because … ok, because I flew into an airport in a city that was the murder capital of the world for several years, and there was just no damn way I was going to carry a gun case around without a quickly-accessible weapon to ensure that my guns don’t become criminals’ guns).

    The flight was fine. No questions asked; I was just handed the gun check ticket and they wanted to see the chambers to make sure they were empty. No problem at all, and they didn’t bat an eye at the large amount of ammo I had (I like to spend a lot of time zeroing before opening day).

    The flight back … I got in trouble for having too many guns in one case. Wound up going through two supervisors, demanded to see anything in writing that said I could not have four guns in one case, and eventually had to settle the whole thing by pointing out that the long guns were for hunting and the short gun was my police-approved sidearm (which, technically, it was, but it’s not like I was 2,000 miles away wearing blaze orange clothing for my local, small-town patrol-officer duty reasons).

  • Mark

    TSA approved locks have universal keys so that TSA can open your baggage to check for whatever they need to check and lock back up. These need to be non TSA since after it’s declared and checked in your presence, no one can open the luggage.

  • ufgeek

    @Huey148: The locks must not be the TSA approved locks generally used on luggage. The TSA (and everyone else) has a master key to these now. These locks are useless.

    In case the author and others are not aware, only the gun / ammo must be locked up. I frequently travel with my pistol in my luggage. It goes in a locked hard side pistol case, and the case goes in my bag. The author’s method is certainly more secure, but when I travel for work, it’s difficult to justify dragging a 17gal tote into a customer’s office, and there’s no way I’m leaving it in the car.

  • Jason

    I am a frequent flyer, and I’ve found that traveling with firearms is one of the best kept secrets in the airline industry. As Alex mentioned, with a firearm your bag now gets hand-delivered, special treatment through security. It becomes flagged in the airlines database, and extra care is taken so that it is NOT lost or mishandled. Also, I have found that (generally) your bag will be among the first to come off the line at baggage pickup. If you bag would happen to be lost, the airline would have to notify law enforcement, rather than dealing with it internally. That is something which they will strive VERY hard to avoid.

    When you travel with your firearm, take the opportunity to be as courteous as possible. Yes sir, yes m’am, please, thank you, and have a wonderful day. Be confident in handling your firearm and clearing it for inspection, if asked. Obey the 4-rules to a “T”. A smile and a good attitude with get you far.

    @Huey148: Once your bag has passed initial inspection, it is to be secured and not to be opened by ANYONE, even airline employees. This helps the airline avoid employee theft. While at inspection, you may be asked to open the case, which is acceptable. However, once the case is shut again, under no circumstances are you to surrender your keys/combinations until it is in your possession again. Any airline employee requesting either keys/combination after the luggage has left your sight is violating federal law.

    Don’t take my word for it though. Visit the TSA website (http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/assistant/editorial_1666.shtm), or call your airline for more information.

  • Erik

    They must not be TSA approved locks because TSA hires contract workers (including felons) to sexually molest *ahem* screen and secure our airports. They don’t want such folks to get access to firearms.

    TSA, security theater since 2001.

  • Eric

    TSA locks are easy to pop open, and can be opened by a master key. The locks you use on your firearm case MUST NOT be able to be opened by anyone but you. The TSA SHOULD NOT be able to open your case without your help/key.

    Everyone should note that policies differ between airlines and practices differ between airports. I’ve always been sent to a separate TSA screening area specifically for checking firearms. Sometimes I’m told to wait while my bag is removed from my sight (they shouldn’t be doing this) and searched, while other times the guy will invite me back into the secure area and we’ll chat about firearms for a few minutes.

    Also, I’ve always used a hard sided pistol case (locked) inside a soft suitcase without issue. I’ve never been asked to show the pistol is unloaded, or even to unlock the pistol case. They simply find the case inside my suitcase, and stick a tag on it saying the firearm has been declared and already inspected by the TSA so it doesn’t get pulled off the automated screening machines later in the process.

    There are two points of confusion I’ve come across. Airlines allow a “reasonable amount” of ammunition. Purely subjective, but you’re pushing your luck after 200 rounds, though I’ve checked as much as 400 before. Also, there is a lot of confusion about whether the suitcase containing the gun case (how I do it, not how this author did it) can be locked or not. It certainly does not have to be. I generally carry an extra padlock in my carry on bag in case the airline/airport tries to force me to comply with some nonstandard policy.

  • Attila

    Huey, the TSA approved locks can be unlocked by virtually anyone on the other side of the ticket counter. When you transport firearms, the TSA agent puts your bag through a scanner with you present. If he wants to look inside, you have to open the case for him with your key. Once through, that bag doesn’t get opened again.

    Alex, one note – my understanding of the FAA regs state that your ticket agent was in violation of federal law when she took your locked container from you. You’re supposed to personally give it to the TSA agent and nobody else.

  • D’troit

    Is the storage bin waterproof?

  • Kurt

    According to the TSA website, a TSA lock is OK:

    “Q. What is the proper lock that I should use to secure my hard-sided firearms case?
    A. Travelers can use a single key or combination lock to which only the traveler has the key or combination, or a TSA-recognized lock.”

    Presumably this would eliminate the usual suitcase locks which can be opened by any key of that brand.

  • Jim

    That seems… remarkably easy and sane? I can’t believe it.

  • Philip Williams

    I’m glad the storage bin worked out for you. For the benefit of everyone else, I’d like to add that “hard-sided case” need not refer to the overall piece of luggage. I traveled with two firearms in a hard-sided pistol case with locks on that pistol case, and put that whole thing into a regular rolling suitcase.

  • Erwos

    TSA approved locks can be opened with a master key of sorts… and, unfortunately, we know not all TSA employees are entirely trustworthy.

  • Ryan

    I’ve read and heard of people buying a starters pistol (legal to have in all states) and adding it to their case of expensive photography or computer equipment. Just to keep it all secure.

  • Jason

    I too travel with a small, hard case inside my primary luggage. I use a Nano-vault secured to the internal frame of my luggage, and it works quite well.

    Eric,
    I’ve found ammo to be a bit of a grey area too. So far, I have not been able to locate any federal law regulating the amount of ammo allowed. That said, most airlines I’ve come across say “no more than 11 lbs (5kg),” which seems to fall within international regulations. Although, being a grey area, is seems to fall to the whim of the person on the other side of the counter.

  • Eric

    IMHO, brilliant work. I am taking several handguns to Texas next Summer and this beats the tar out of those expensive gun-specific cases.

    Many thanks.

  • Tom W.

    As Philip and Eric mentioned, it’s acceptable to use a hard pistol case and place it inside another checked bag. My father and I flew out of Baltimore to Colorado Springs two years back, and it was actually suggested by the clerk at the counter that we do that to avoid a third checked bag fee. It wasn’t required that we locked the bag itself on either leg of the journey.

    Strangely enough, though Maryland is generally less gun-friendly than Colorado, we went through no hoops on the trip out. No screening, no opening the case except to insert a declaration card. On the return trip, we had both the pistol case and the luggage screened by a TSA employee, wiped both down for anthrax, inspected the hard case and weapons, etc. It struck me as odd that none of that was brought up in Baltimore.

    I was pleasantly surprised how easy the whole process is.

  • Tekkie

    http://deviating.net/firearms/packing/

    Fantastic website covering firearms and airlines. I highly recommend watching the video at the top of the page, it is eye opening to say the least. Also the airline report card is extremely helpful.

  • DaveTheGreat

    @Ryan –

    That is simply one of the most brilliant ideas I have ever heard of. I often travel with a bunch of expensive stuff and have been carrying it all with me (or at least taking as much of the most expensive/delicate stuff I could carry). Most of these things are not things I need or want during the flight, and I often have to go without stuff I want for lack of room.

    I’m checking auctionarms for starter pistols now 🙂

  • Mr. Fahrenheit

    Hello everyone.

    Thank you for including my write-up on your blog, Steve. I am humbled. Especially after reading the previous guest posts. My narrative seems sorely inadequate.

    To the readers and commentators: There are many options available for a hard sided case, of course. I chose the plastic bin because it was cheap and expedient. Had I stumbled across some inexpensive hard sided luggage I would have likely opted to travel with that instead. As it was, I felt the bin would be able to stand up to considerable abuse while still maintaining its integrity. Perhaps more importantly, the 17 gallon bin afforded me a large amount of space, for clothes and other stuff besides the gun, while still coming in well below the 50 pound weight limit.

    To be sure, the plastic bin is not impregnable. It’s just keeping honest people honest. The six padlocks were actually quite low profile on the bin. You’d have to get up pretty close to see that I was trying to keep people out. From a distance it looked like a cheap bin with maybe some college student’s books or the like.

    I was also aware that only the gun and ammo had to be locked up. But I did not want to run the risk of being forced to lock up a hard sided pistol case and check it in separately from any luggage I also had to check in. Basically, I was just covering all my bases.

    I noticed on Southwest’s web site that they allow a firearm in a locked hard sided case to be placed within checked in soft sided luggage. Continental was silent on the matter. Better safe than sorry.

    I hope anyone that may have been hesitant to travel with a firearm in the past will read my post and see that it wasn’t bad at all. Honestly – checking the firearm was the least stressful part of the journey.

    Thanks for reading!
    Alex

  • Mr. Fahrenheit

    @D’troit. This particular bin is not water proof. That’s why I went to Target and purchased the large Ziploc bags. They’re remarkably thick and were up to the job.

    @Attila. Perhaps. But I had read other traveler accounts of the airline ticket agents taking the luggage without the traveler having to go through a screening area first. I guess it depends on the airport. Regardless, I wasn’t concerned at the time.

    Also, searching the internet for tips on how to travel with a firearm can lead to many conflicting, and just plain wrong, facts.

    I found this site to be quite helpful:

    http://deviating.net/

    At the very least, the info on Deviant’s site led me to more authoritative sources than just “some guy” on an internet forum.

  • Henry Bowman

    “the suitcase is stronger than a Lowe’s bin and anyone who can cut one lock can cut six.”

    Plus, the case is PLASTIC, dudes. Why cut the lock, when you can cut the lock HOLES? One jab of a Kabar along the shackle holes and the lock just drops out the bottom. 🙁

  • I had a less than pleasant experience traveling roundtrip from Oakland, CA to Casper, WY. I was hassled for my lock and my firearm was dumped on the busy Oakland luggage claim floor.
    The account in detail is here:
    http://anti-authoritariangunclub.blogspot.com/2011/01/flying-with-firearm.html

  • Mrw

    I was pulled off a flight and fined for not using a tsa approved lock on my shotgun case a few years back.

  • Thanks for the heads up on this. VERY useful post and good tips. We believe that following these guidelines will help you to stay out of trouble.
    (One of our team members once had deep trouble and had to go through all kind of nightmare like procedures before he could continue his trip).