These days, it’s hard enough to know what you can and can’t take onto a commercial airliner.

Throw a firearm into the mix, and it can be confusing enough to make you want to just leave your guns at home. But if you’re a competitive shooter or a hunter or headed somewhere for some tactical training, you’re going to want to use your own weapon(s), so it pays to be familiar with the requirements of flying with a firearm. Hopefully, the following guidelines will help you navigate through the maze of getting your guns on your flight and to your final destination.

FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF WITH THE REGS

You have the right to transport personal firearms on a commercial airline flight under the “Safe Passage Act.” However, when you get to your final destination and get off your plane, you will be subject to that state/municipality/country’s laws, so make sure you’re familiar with those laws and aren’t breaking any of them. Individual airlines can vary in their firearm policies as well, so it’s also a good idea to check your airline’s website or give them a call prior to arriving at the airport with your guns. Laws can and do change on a fairly regular basis, so check TSA’s website (www.tsa.gov/travel/transporting-firearms-and-ammunition) before you travel with firearms or ammo.

FORGET ABOUT CARRYING ON YOUR GUN

You can’t even bring a pocket knife in your carry-on baggage, so unless you’re a Federal Air Marshal or a law enforcement officer (LEO) who qualifies, forget thinking you’ll be able to carry your firearm onto the plane. If you get caught trying to do so, even if it’s an honest mistake, like not realizing a gun was in your bag, you could be looking at criminal prosecution and civil penalties of up to $10,000, so make darn sure you know what’s in your bag before you head for the airport. Along with guns, you also can’t carry on ammunition and firearm parts such as frames, receivers, magazines, etc. However, this does NOT include scopes, optics, weapon-mounted lights, or other non-lethal accessories. But for the most part, if it’s a gun, gun part, or ammo, you’re going to have to check it.

By the way, not every LEO can carry his or her weapon on a plane. In order to qualify, a LEO must meet all of the following criteria:

  • Be a federal LEO or a fulltime municipal, county, or state LEO who’s a direct government agency employee
  • Be sworn and commissioned to enforce criminal or immigration statutes
  • Be authorized by the employing agency to have a weapon in connection with assigned duties
  • Have completed the “Law Enforcement Officers Flying Armed” training program.

DECLARE IT, THEN CHECK IT

You must declare firearms, ammunition, and firearm parts during the check-in process at the airline ticket counter. This means you’re not going to be able to do kiosk or curbside check-in, so be sure to add in some extra time for the process. What you’re going to do is declare each firearm as you present it for checked baggage transport. The firearm MUST be unloaded (duh) and locked in a hard-sided container, and ONLY you, the firearm possessor/passenger should have the key or lock combination. Do NOT use TSA locks; they’re not approved for securing firearms. Make sure there are no magazines inserted in the weapon, and it’s a good idea to lock the action open so TSA agents can visually verify the weapons are unloaded.

Once you’ve checked your guns, don’t be in a big hurry to get to your gate. Depending on the airline and airport, a TSA agent may be called over to do an inspection, or you may be escorted to a TSA checkpoint. Even once the case is locked up and leaves your possession, there’s still a chance TSA will ask you to reopen the case, so stick around for a bit in case they page you. Again, leave yourself plenty of extra time.

BRING THE RIGHT CASE

As mentioned, the case has to be hard-sided and lockable. Don’t try to get away with a soft case and lock the zippers; it’s not going to cut it. You can transport firearm parts, magazines, and ammunition within the same locked case. The ammunition cannot be loose, however; it must be in a box or storage case. It’s technically okay for it to be loaded into magazines, but you may be asked to remove it, even though it’s perfectly legal, so why make additional problems for yourself?

Eleven seems to be the magic number of pounds of ammo you can carry onto a commercial airliner, and know that if your case ends up weighing more than 50 pounds, you’re going to have to pay an overage fee. It’s still just another piece of luggage, after all.

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED

Finally, even though there are clear TSA and airline procedures, recognize that said procedures are still being implemented by individual human beings, so there may be a few wrinkles. For example, you may discover that your locks got cut by TSA somewhere between your departure and arrival even though you did everything ‘right.’ If your guns have been tampered with or stolen, then obviously you need to get the authorities involved and rectify the situation. But if all you lost was a lock, it’s probably best to just walk away from it and buy yourself another lock. Of course, if you want to take on the TSA, it’s certainly your right. But if everything made it to your destination in tact, wouldn’t you rather get out of that stuffy airport and get to your competition, hunt, or training?

The three major pieces of advice are: be prepared, be flexible, and leave yourself plenty of time. So long as you’ve got those three bases covered, it should be a pleasant enough flight…other than having insufficient leg room and being charged for pillows and blankets, of course.

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