Written by: Greg Ellifritz
I travel by air quite a bit. Last year I took 67 flights. Fifty-two of those flights were domestic and I traveled with guns on every one of them. I’ve flown with guns on over 50 flights a year for the past three years since my police retirement. Even though each airline and airport is slightly different, after a lot of trial and error I’ve figured out how to fly with firearms hassle free.
As I was going through the airline firearms check-in procedures on my most recent trip, it struck me that many of my readers might not know that it is legal to carry guns in checked airplane baggage or how to do it. Here’s what you have to do to be legal:
-Unload the guns.
– Place the unloaded guns into a locked, hard sided case. The case must be completely sealed. If a TSA agent can manually pry open a corner of your case enough to slide a finger inside, you likely won’t be allowed to check the gun.
After hearing frequent reports of TSA agents trying to pry open a corner of the gun case (to claim it was unsuitable for properly securing your gun), I also switched to carrying a Travel Armor gun case. With its unique latching mechanism, there is no way to access the case when properly locked.
Also, a strict interpretation of the law seems to mandate that the lock on your gun case must NOT be TSA-accessible. In practice, I have not found that to be the case. The TSA itself has a different interpretation of the law on its website. They directly state: “You may use any brand or type of lock to secure your firearm case, including TSA-recognized locks.”
No one has ever even mentioned the fact that my gun case is secured with a TSA lock. In fact, it has sped up the check-in process a few times for me.
I’ve wavered back and forth over the years about using non-TSA locks on my gun case as seems to be required by the law. After this experience two years ago, I’ve chosen to lock the case up with TS-accessible locks. My guns are insured. My gun case is not. I can’t afford to buy an $80 gun case every time I fly when the TSA decides to break it to gain access. I put two non-TSA locks in the gun case with the guns in case the agent wants to quibble about details. I’ve never had to use the extra non-TSA locks I carry.
I also have my phone number taped to the outside of the case along with a copy of my LEOSA retired cop nationwide carry authorization. In case my flight gets diverted to a less “gun-friendly” city, that law enforcement credential might save me some hassles.
-Place the hard-sided case into your locked (with TSA-approved lock) suitcase.
-When you check your bag, inform the ticket agent that you would like to declare a firearm. Don’t say “I have a gun” or something equally stupid. Say something like, “I have an unloaded pistol in my checked bag that I need to declare.”
– The ticket agent will give you a little white or orange form to sign and may ask to inspect the gun to see that it is unloaded. That depends on the individual airport and airline. Most ticket agents just want to see a locked, hard sided case, but I would estimate that on 5% of my recent flights, they have asked to physically see the guns inside the case. Be ready for that if they ask.
If the ticket agent does ask you to show that the gun is unloaded, I place my suitcase on the baggage scale and use my body to block the view of the gun from my fellow passengers in line. I open the case and tell the ticket agent: “You can see that the guns are unloaded. I signed a form attesting that the guns are unloaded. I’m uncomfortable handling the weapons in a public area like this. If you’d like to call a police officer over to verify the guns are unloaded, I’ll allow him to handle the guns.”
That line has worked every time I’ve used it. They have never called an officer to verify the unloaded status of the guns. It may help to insert a chamber flag into the weapon to prove it is unloaded.
People are crazy in airports. I would hate to be shot by a CCW carrier or local cop because I was waving a gun around at the airline ticket counter, even if it was at the agent’s request.
– Each airline has different procedures for placement of the form. Southwest will tape it to the outside of your case. Others will instruct you to place the form into your gun case and lock everything up. Some other airlines tell you to place the form on top of the case in your luggage. Just do what the ticketing agent tells you to do. You are then theoretically are good to go, but in practice, you may have a few more hurdles to clear.
– Every airport has a different procedure after the baggage declaration. Some don’t require anything more. In that case, the entire process adds less than five minutes to your check in time.
Other airports will require you to have your luggage inspected by the TSA before loading it onto the plane. Some will want you to wait in the ticket counter area for 10-15 minutes until the bags are inspected. Others require your presence during the inspection. There isn’t much consistency across the country or even between airlines.
With that said, after more than 25 years of flying with guns, I’ve never had any serious issues at all. I’ve had one gun case broken by TSA, but I’ve never had guns stolen. Many of my friends are now placing Apple Air Tags into their luggage (or even inside the mag well of the cased pistol) to have an additional tracking option. I think that’s a good idea and have been doing that for the last couple years.
A couple of other things you might want to know….
– You are not allowed to check a firearm at the curbside luggage check in counter outside the airport.
– Most airlines limit ammunition to 11 lbs and and require that it must be carried in a box or container that is designed to hold ammunition. Some airlines allow loaded magazines if the bullets are completely covered by caps or a magazine carrier. I just unload my mags and carry the ammo in a factory cartridge box. I keep the ammo box separate from the gun case, but TSA regulations say that it is OK to keep the gun and ammo together.
-Unloaded magazines are supposed to be boxed or locked in the same case as the firearm. I actually didn’t know this until last year. When teaching my classes, I regularly fly with a range bag filled with eye and ear protection, boxed ammo, and unloaded magazines in my suitcase. It’s never been an issue, but if your mags fit in your locked gun case, you should probably transport them there.
Make sure your ammo is all boxed, or in an enclosed case. Check the pockets of your clothes for spare cartridges.
– If you carry pepper spray, it must be in a four-ounce or smaller container and placed in your checked bag. I usually carry mine inside a Ziploc bag because canisters can leak as a result of the plane’s varying air pressurization. For what it’s worth, I carry pepper spray in my checked bag on every trip I take. In hundreds of flights over the last 25 years, I’ve never had a canister explode or leak during a flight.
Southwest Airlines officially prohibits the carry of pepper spray in checked luggage. With that said, I’ve carried my pepper spray in my checked bag on every Southwest flight I’ve taken. It’s never been an issue. The spray has not been seized, nor has my baggage been delayed.
– Each airline has different procedures about how you pick up your bag with a checked firearm. As of January 2024, if you have a handgun case inside another piece of luggage, Southwest and United will just throw your bag on the luggage carousel with all the other bags and there is no special procedure to pick them up. On those same airlines, if you check a stand alone long gun case, you will have to pick it up at the airline’s baggage claim office.
Both American and Delta now deliver all your luggage that contains guns to the baggage claim office rather than placing it on the conveyor belt. You’ll have to show your ID to get the bag. About 10% of the time I flew last year, my gun bag which clearly said “RETURN TO BAGGAGE OFFICE” on the luggage label was placed on the same conveyor with Gen Pop suitcases.
As I’m waiting for my bags, I usually pick a spot where I can see the baggage conveyor belt and the baggage office door. That way, if I see the bag was improperly paced on the conveyor, I just grab it and head out. If it doesn’t come up on the conveyor belt, I can see when the baggage handler delivers my bag to the airline office.
Delta also regularly zip ties the bags closed before releasing them to you. That processes is done by individual airport policy and/or at the discretion the person working in the baggage claim office. They don’t want a passenger to immediately open up the bag and begin shooting up the baggage claim area (that happened in Ft. Lauderdale in 2017).
Consequently, when I fly Delta I always pack a small pair of trauma shears (blunt points and under four inch blade length) with the first aid supplies I have in my carry-on luggage. Those shears are allowed by the TSA and make short work of their zip ties as soon as I take possession of the bag.
– Be cautious with your batteries for sights, lasers, and flashlights. Some security screeners freak out if you have loose lithium batteries in either checked bag or carry-on.
-Putting knives in your checked bag is allowed as well. There are no special declarations required when checking a bag containing a knife (or multiple knives).
– If you encounter any difficulties during the check-in process, calmly ask to speak to a supervisor. If the supervisor doesn’t remedy the issue, the person to contact is the airport’s “Ground Security Coordinator.” That person is in charge of all of the security for the entire airport. He/She has final say about issues involved in transporting your weapons.
Some folks take the time to print out copies of TSA regulations and airline policies in the event that a ticket agent asks the passenger to do something different. I find that doesn’t help much and just adds time to your check in. As long as it isn’t dangerous, I’ll do whatever the ticket agent/TSA inspector tells me to do, even if it’s “wrong.” I’d rather not miss my flight. I’d rather my bags not be delayed. In my mind, it’s better to get to my destination on time and with my bags than to argue with mindless bureaucrats and be “right.”
-No matter what your airline app says, if your gun bag is delayed, they will not send it to your location. You will have to return to the airport to pick up your bag in person. Don’t expect the airlines to call you and let you know where your bags are or what you must do to complete the re-unification process. The apps will indicate that your bag will be transported to the address you specify. It will not. Pick it up at the destination baggage claim office.
I primarily fly the large domestic legacy airline carriers. I have lots of experience flying Delta, American, United, and Southwest with guns. I have zero experience flying the budget airlines like Spirit, Breeze, WOW, or Jet Blue. I understand that their policies are similar, but I have no direct experience with them. I’ve also not flown with guns to a foreign country. The advice above applies to flights within the USA only.
If you are traveling to a state that has reciprocity with your CCW, why not take your guns? Even if you don’t think you’ll need them at your destination, it doesn’t hurt to have them along. Imagine vacationing in Louisiana as Hurricane Katrina hit. Wouldn’t you like to have a gun if you were subjected to that chaos? What if you get stranded in your travels after another 9/11- style terror attack stops all airline travel for a few days? If you have to rent a car and drive across the country to get home, wouldn’t you want your pistol?
Some things are out of our control. It’s smart to be prepared, even if you are visiting an area where you don’t think you’ll “need” your gun.