I was planning a trip to visit my brother and dad near my home town. While growing up I would grab one of our guns, walk out the door and “go shooting”. But now that I am a multi-hour drive, or short flight, from where I grew up I have to plan a little more when I want to take some guns with me on the plane. So I did some research to find out what I have to do to fly with a gun.
Taking your gun with you when you fly from state to state is perfectly legal. Hunters, competition shooters, and NRA instructors, among many others, do it all the time. As long as you do it the right way, it should be hassle-free. You just have to follow a few rules and make sure you transport it properly.
Join us as we walk you through everything you need to know on how to travel with a gun on a plane. It doesn’t matter if you’re traveling with a pistol or a rifle, revolver or a shotgun, the same rules of travel should apply.
Before You Pack: Check the TSA Website for Updated Rules
Gun laws vary by state and airline, and the rules change all the time. Before you pack your hard case in order to travel with a gun on a plane, check in with the TSA and the airline you’ll be flying on. You need to comply with gun laws set by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) or risk losing your firearm.
Checking the TSA website before you travel should allow you to get the most recent information on how to fly with a pistol or rifle. However, most of the info we cover here will get you 99% of the way there.
You’ll find a quick rundown of the TSA rules later on in the article. You still need to visit the TSA website for up-to-date procedures and regulations on flying with guns in case they changed anything.
It doesn’t matter if you know someone who traveled with a gun on the same airline last night and told you all about it. Airlines change their rules all the time. Check the airline website or call them.
The Destination State
Research gun laws in the state you’re going to. You want to make sure you’re complying with federal, state, and local laws. There are several things you need to find out.
Your gun laws include not only your gun but also several other things.
- Is your gun allowed everywhere/in designated places/not at all?
- What’s the maximum caliber allowed?
- What magazines and ammo are allowed?
- Is your FOID valid and/or required?
Do you have reciprocity for your concealed-carry permit in the state you’re going to? Some states will honor your permit while others won’t, which could lead to fines or getting arrested.
Of course this doesn’t necessarily impact your traveling on an airplane with your gun – but it might have an effect on how you carry your gun when you arrive. It’s worth keeping in mind when preparing to travel.
How Do I Pack a Firearm for Travel?
Here’s a quick rundown of how to safely pack your firearms.
Lockable Hard-Sided Case
Your gun needs to be in a sturdy, solid gun case. It doesn’t need to match your gun type, any hard-sided case will do. (We obviously have our top picks for the best hard pistol cases and hard rifle cases which we recommend.)
These cases are usually lined in foam with various cutouts for your gun and your ammo so that they’re all securely inserted inside and don’t move around.
You can also use a chamber flag or place your gun field stripped. Also, your gun must be packed unloaded.
Never Put a Gun in the Carry-On Luggage
You can’t take your gun case in your carry-on bag. You can either place it inside your checked bag or treat the gun case as a checked bag. There are arguments against each.
If you put your gun case in checked luggage, this makes your luggage look like any other bag, which some people believe will deter thieves. On some carriers and in some airports your case will come off of the plane just like a normal piece of luggage. When it hits the carousel you don’t want people knowing it’s a gun.
However, that’s pretty rare as most will require that you pick it up at a counter and claim it using your ID.
Treating Your Gun Case as Checked Luggage
On the other hand, some people believe that if you treat your gun as checked luggage, it might catch a gun thief’s eye and make it easier for them to pilfer your gun or steal the whole case.
Should I Lock the Case?
Unlike regular luggage, you can lock your gun cases with TSA-compliant locks. You need two heavy-duty locks, and you have to keep the keys on you at all times.
According to the law, “only the passenger retains the key or combination”. The idea here is to protect your firearm against theft and creates an easily trackable “chain of custody”.
Naturally, no lock is 100% foolproof. You want to try and make it harder and more time-consuming for the robber to steal, so they’ll hopefully give up and quit faster.
To this end, a good idea is to use a couple of really good keyed or combination locks and secure your gun case to the inside or handle of the checked baggage that contains it. Take a look at our breakdown of the best locks for your gun case and invest in good-quality locks.
If there’s other stuff in your checked bag, make sure you place your case on top of everything else. This way, you won’t have to unpack your carefully packed stuff if you’re asked to show your gun case and/or open it.
What Do I Do With the Ammo When Flying?
Some airlines will require you to unload your magazines as well. Because ammo can’t be carried loose, you’ll typically be required to put your ammo in the original box it came in.
Other airlines will let you keep your magazines loaded, but they can’t be in your gun, and they need to be packed in a way that ensures the primer can’t go off.
One thing I’ve done in the past is to create a cutout in the case where I can place the ammo holder that usually comes in the ammo box and keep my ammo with the gun, in the case. But some airlines want them packed separately.
Usually, the maximum ammo you can fly with is 11lbs. Again, the limit varies by airline and state. Make sure you check the website of your airline and your state destination, so you don’t end up having to throw away valuable rounds.
At the Airport
Generally, allow for 30-45 minutes extra. Here’s a breakdown of what you need to do once you’re at the airport.
Declare Your Gun
The first thing you need to do is to head to the ticket counter of your airline to declare your gun. You don’t even need to mention the word gun or firearm if you’d rather not, but don’t go to the people and say, “I have a gun.”
Simply tell the customer service agent that you have an item to declare.
You’ll be asked to fill out and sign a declaration card. Usually, it states that you’re the owner of the gun and that it’s unloaded.
A copy of your declaration will be attached to, or inside your gun case. You’ll be given another copy to keep on you.
You’ll be asked to go to the oversized baggage counter or to a backroom for an inspection. Unless explicitly asked by TSA, don’t leave your gun case unattended.
An agent might ask you if you’ve placed your gun in an appropriate gun case, that the case is locked, and that the gun is unloaded. They might also ask you to open your case and show them.
They might tap on the case to make sure it’s hard-sided. They might also try opening it themselves to make sure your locks work.
After you put your locked gun case back inside your checked bag and close it, you might be asked to lock your checked bag. TSA might also attach a special tag to your checked bag.
If you have a TSA-approved multitool, don’t put it inside your checked luggage. Some airlines like Delta will put a zip tie on your checked bag, and you’ll need your TSA-approved multitool to cut it open.
Now you have to wait for instructions. You might be asked to stand by the TSA counter for a certain period of time in case TSA needs to conduct a random search and ask you a few questions, and to proceed to the security checkpoint after that.
Usually, you’re told to join the regular passengers at the security checkpoint, and from then on, it’s the regular stuff: Flight gate then boarding your plane.
If you can, get confirmation that your luggage has been cleared before proceeding to the security checkpoint.
What Happens to Your Gun Case
Like all other checked luggage, your gun case is now on its way to the belly of the plane.
At Your Destination
Depending on your carrier and destination, your luggage will come off the baggage belt like the other passengers’ luggage, or you’ll need to claim it at the baggage claim office using your ID. This procedure offers more security against anyone taking your checked bag by accident.
You can also request that the bag be sent to the baggage claim and that only you can claim it after your show your ID for more security.
If Your Flight Is Delayed
Many gun owners have reported problems with law enforcement when they retrieved their gun case after their flight was delayed or rerouted, especially in gun-hostile states like New York and New Jersey.
Again, different states have different rules. If your flight is diverted, don’t accept your checked bag until you’ve checked local and state laws concerning flying with a gun in that particular state.
Will My Gun Be Confiscated If I Don’t Do All This?
If you try to fly with a gun without following procedures, you won’t get on your plane. You’ll either give up your valuable gun or miss your flight.
While the TSA can’t confiscate your gun, they’re required by law to call the police if a passenger walks into a security checkpoint carrying a gun on their person or in their carry-on bag.
In California, for instance, police can arrest the passenger. In other states, police will usually first make sure the passenger is the rightful owner of the gun. Then they’ll ask the passenger to take their gun and leave the airport, which could make the passenger miss their flight.
If you can’t afford to miss your flight, your gun will join the numerous firearms and other weapons left behind at the TSA counter.
You can’t pick your gun up when you get back from your trip, either. The TSA disposes of it and you may be fined up to $7500.
If you’re still unsure about flying with a gun or you’re worried about your gun case getting stolen, you can always have the FFL mail your gun from your state to the state you’re going to. It generally costs the same as a checked bag.
This is an especially good idea if you’re traveling through a gun-hostile state, even if you’ve complied with all gun travel laws and procedures.
A number of restrictions apply, but you can mail your gun to someone else or to yourself. If you do the latter, only you can take possession of the package when you arrive at your destination.
It’s essential to do your research and check the TSA rules, the airline rules, and your destination state laws. Be especially careful in New York, New Jersey, and any other gun-hostile states.
But, if you follow the rules, you’ll find that flying with a gun should go smoothly. The important things to remember are to declare the gun at the counter, lock it in a reliable hard case and follow their rules when you’re at the airport – and you should be fine.