I am an intermediate flyer, more than just an occasional flyer, but not what I would call a road warrior. I fly with firearms when even my destination allows it. I was asked by a friend to detail what is involved. A few weeks ago when the shooting occurred in Ft Lauderdale, there was so much misinformation I saw on the internet, it only makes this post more important.
First off, laws and procedures change constantly. Always review both TSA regulations and those for the airline(s) you are flying. Do this for every trip.And, as with method of travel, review the state laws of every state you will visit. My favorite site is handgunlaw.us.
I have checked firearms in Indianapolis, Miami, Seattle, Bellingham, WA, and Raleigh, NC. With the exception of Seattle, the procedure is pretty much the same.
Step 1: As you are packing for your trip (even if you aren’t going to transport a firearm) go through your luggage. Make sure that there is no loose ammunition in the bag. No idea how it ends up there, but it does. I found a live .40 round in my computer bag once. Make sure your luggage is clean. Then, do it again.
Step 2: The firearm and ammunition need to be in a hard sided, locked case. I use the factory case my M&P pistol came it. If you only have a cardboard box, then you will have to buy one. You just need a plastic case, with some padding on the inside, and someway to lock it with a built in combination lock or a padlock. My M&P case has a padlock hole in the handle.
Step 3: Following the four rules of gun safety, unload your firearm.Check by both sight and feel that the chamber/cylinder is empty and the magazine is removed, if applicable. The TSA says your ammunition needs to be stored in a container used to hold ammunition. A magazine is such a container. I have never had an issue with that. I have heard of some people that unload the magazine and place the loose ammo in a factory box. That is certainly an option, but space is limited. I always carry with a full magazine plus one in the chamber. For travel, I just don’t take the chamber round, so at my destination, I am just downloaded 1 round. Let your conscious guide you here. There is a limit on the amount of ammo you can transport. For simply concealed carry, you won’t get close to the limit. If you are flying to a class, you may want to ship your ammo ahead or purchase it as your destination. One thing I like to do, if you have the room, is to remove the slide or at least lock it back. That way, when TSA X-Rays it or the counter clerk or TSA agent inspects it, it is obvious that it is disabled. You may not have room to do this.
Step 4: Place your unloaded firearm and magazines in the case and lock it WITH A NON-TSA LOCK. The case needs to be locked with a lock that ONLY YOU have a key for or know the combination for. You will also need a TSA lock for your suitcase, but that comes later. And then place the locked case in your bag you wish to check. Again, let your conscious guide you. You can do this step at home, in your car at the airport, or in a bathroom. I WOULD NOT recommend unloading a firearm at baggage check. Always check local laws for handling a firearm in the non-secure area of an airport. I feel the safest place to do administrative handling is at home, since you do it there anyway and have good safety practices in place. But, that leaves you unarmed on your travels to the airport. Again, this is something you need to plan out a head of time. If you are going to do administrative handling at the airport, practice your plan at home to ensure everything fits.
Step 5: Check in at the counter. Tell the agent you need to declare a firearm(s). Be sure to use this language. You don’t want to walk up to the counter and state “I have got a gun”, as that sets people on edge. Checking firearms is common, so the agent will know what to do. The exact procedure varies by airport and by airline, but in general it works like this:
- Place you check bag on the scale.
- Tell the agent you wish to declare a firearm.
- The agent will give you a card to fill out. The card just gives a summary of the rules.
- Sign and date the card.
- The agent keeps a copy, and gives you a copy.
- Place the card on top of the locked case (not in it). I believe that reason for this is that if TSA were to open you bag, it is proof that you declared the firearm.
- Lock the bag with a TSA lock.
And that is it. You r bag and firearm will arrive safely at your destination and come out on the regular baggage carousel.
Here is what the declaration card looks like (the bottom form). Each airline has their own card, so yours will likely look different.
Delta in Indy gives you the top form. After you pass through TSA, you show the form to the TSA supervisor. What they are doing is holding you are TSA until your bag has went through X-Ray. I have never had to wait. I kind of like this because you bag goes through the normal channels and if there is a problem (there never has for me), they don’t have to track you down in the airport.
Alaska in Seattle tags your bag and makes you go to a special TSA screening station. There, they open you bag and check for explosives. Once done, you lock the bag and they place it on a cart. If there is a problem, you are right there. However, once my bag didn’t make it on the plane because it didn’t travel down the normal baggage pipeline.
I have had issues with multi-leg flights where there was no agreement between non-partner airlines, meaning I had to uncheck and recheck at an intermediate airport. Not sure how to know this ahead of time. I have flown to Bellingham, WA from Indy 3 times. 2 on the westward travel, I had to uncheck and recheck in Seattle. I never had on the eastward journey. As you should anyway, always check the tag they place on your luggage and make sure you know where it is going to pop out at.
Overall, I have found this a painless process. But, I would allow an extra hour, just in case.