The TSA agent called an airport police officer to inspect the firearms in my checked luggage. The officer didn’t seem to know much about guns, but she was a large woman with a Glock on her hip and the authority to lock me in the airport jail. Call it intuition, but I got the sense that her friendly demeanor could change.
I’d removed the barrel from my 870 so that it would fit into the case a little easier. Rather than open its action, she grasped the receiver and slide in a few places, as if gauging the firmness of a big zucchini. Then she held the barrel up, squinting one eye as she peered through the muzzle with the other.
Satisfied with that, she then picked up my carry gun, which, unlike her Glock, has a manual safety that at first prevented her from cycling the slide. She began wrenching on it like a frustrated toddler.
“You have to take the safety off first,” I said softly. “It’s right there.”
Tempted as I was to say something clever, the sure outcome of any smartassery would’ve been more time spent in the airport back room with my new friends, and I had no interest in that. I kept my mouth shut, and a few minutes later, I was on the way to my gate.
Flying with firearms makes people nervous, and I’m frequently asked about the difficulty of it. I fly 10 to 12 times a year, and almost always with a firearm. Most trips end without any delays or questions from security. But on occasion, situations like the one I just described—which happened to me after a turkey hunt last spring—do arise.
If you’re not prepared, you might have a long day and some probing in your future. You don’t want that. Plan ahead and be informed, and nothing in your travels with guns will be unmanageable.
Know the Rules
TSA rules for flying with firearms are explicit and easy to understand, and they apply to every domestic airline. Read them here.
Some airlines (and airports) implement rules of their own, but in general, if you understand and follow the TSA rules without exception, you will be O.K.
Your firearm and ammunition must be in your checked baggage. Gun parts—magazines, choke tubes, bolts, etc.—need to stay in your checked bags as well. You can throw a fit in the security line and argue over the harmlessness of a choke tube, but it won’t do you any good—and it could be the first step toward that probing I mentioned earlier.
You can’t just drop your .45 in your suitcase, either. To legally check your firearm, you need a hard-sided case that meets TSA specifications (most appropriate cases are labeled as such). I’ve flown all over the country with a $30 hard-sided plastic pistol case with a pair of padlocks on it. I have checked rifles and shotguns alike in a basic $40 Plano case as well, but if you’re protecting optics, it’s worth investing in a beefier case.
Pistol cases can be put inside other checked luggage; long guns need to be checked in individual bags. Be certain to remove any detachable magazines, and check twice to ensure that the gun is unloaded. A limited amount of ammunition can be checked in the case alongside the firearm or separately in your luggage, but it must also be packaged per TSA regulations. The easiest thing to do is to keep ammo in its factory packaging. Don’t forget any loose rounds in pockets or packs. You don’t have to use TSA locks to secure your gun case, but they do make life easier. Ensure that there are no potential access points into your case, particularly if you’re using a plastic case, which has corners that can be pried open. When in doubt, add another lock.
Once you’re positive that everything is secured properly, arrive at the ticket counter at least 30 minutes earlier than normal. You’re required to “declare” your firearm to the airline immediately upon checking in. It’s better to softly say, “I’m checking a rifle and ammunition,” than to loudly say, “I’ve got a gun!”
After that, you’ll be required to sign a declaration form that your firearm is unloaded. They may ask to see inside the case, they may call for a TSA inspection on the spot, or they may tape the form to your case and send you on your merry way. Be prepared for any of the above—but do not allow the firearm to leave your possession unless the case is locked and you have the keys. If your firearm is sent down the line, hang out for 10 to 15 minutes before heading through security yourself, because you could very well be called to unlock the case for an inspection.
Some people who dislike guns also work at airports—especially around major metropolitan areas. If you sense that someone is uncomfortable around your firearm, then they probably are. Even personnel tasked with their inspection, like TSA officers or airport police, may not know much of anything about guns. That’s why it’s worth hanging out a few extra minutes with the keys to your locks, just so you can be present if they need to look inside your case.
Once you’re called into the back room, you can give them a good rant about your Second Amendment rights, their ineptness, and the overall wretched state of their administration. But that won’t get you to your gate or back home any faster. Being cordial and helpful—but saying nothing more than what’s needed—-probably will.
TIP OF THE MONTH: Airports and Archery Gear
Interestingly, I’m stalled in security more consistently with bowhunting tackle than with firearms. In fact, I can recall one hunt where the security officer virtually ignored the locked pistol case in my bag but spent 15 minutes inspecting the innards of my bow case. Although you’re not required to declare archery tackle, the TSA may want to see it anyway—and you don’t want them tampering with your bow unsupervised. That advice about arriving early if you’re flying with guns applies to flying with bows, too. —W.B.