How To Fly on a Plane With A Gun
Below you'll find Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel With Firearms and Ammunition! I've checked a fair number of firearms in the last decade onto flights. In one year alone, I boarded 99 planes and have personally visited all but 4 US states.
To make this web page as efficient as possible for all readers, I'm providing a Table of Contents to allow you to jump directly to any specific topic or the video summary at the bottom.
What The Federal Law Says
From the TSA website, here is the summary:
You may transport unloaded firearms in a locked hard-sided container as checked baggage only. Declare the firearm and/or ammunition to the airline when checking your bag at the ticket counter. The container must completely secure the firearm from being accessed. Locked cases that can be easily opened are not permitted. Be aware that the container the firearm was in when purchased may not adequately secure the firearm when it is transported in checked baggage.
Like most legal questions, the devil is often in the details. Therefore, we will try to address specific elements one by one for the rest of this article.
As we do, I'll add some cautionary thoughts about the tendency and ability for individual airports and airlines to enact specific laws or policies above and beyond the TSA guidelines.
Checked VS Carry-On
Passengers may only transport firearms AND ammunition in checked luggage. That means they will never go through a security checkpoint with you. Taking a firearm, firearm parts, or ammunition through a security checkpoint on your person or in carry-on luggage is illegal and can result in criminal charges.
Each year thousands of firearms are discovered at security checkpoints in America. According to the TSA official blog, TSA Agents found 4,239 firearms in carry-on luggage last year. Don't be one of those people who forget that your firearm is in your bag (One of the reasons we recommend having a dedicated range bag).
The Gun Check-In Process & Declaration
Declare the firearm and/or ammunition to the airline when checking your bag at the ticket counter.
You are required to inform the airline that you are checking a firearm by law EACH TIME you check the bag, even if you are checking in for a return flight from which you previously declared it. This process occurs at the ticket counter, where you check-in, check your bags and often retrieve your boarding pass.
If you checked in from a mobile app or your home computer, you still need to go to this counter (specific to your chosen airline) and check your bags. That is where you need to make your firearm declaration.
I'm in the habit of using language that is unassuming and not confrontational. I generally say: “I need to complete a firearm declaration.” I would avoid “I have a gun, and I need to check it” or “There is a gun in my bag, can I check it please?”
My gut feeling is that you don't want to lead with something that informs them you have a gun, which may cause an emotional response.
That said, you should know that I've never once had an airline employee so much as bat an eye at my firearm declaration.
Part of my success is because I avoid airports where I know there will be a conflict (more on that below). Still, for most airports in gun-friendly states, you should expect that they have a process in place. The airline employees are accustomed to following that process and will not get hysterical about the situation.
What can you expect next?
Most airlines have a small paper tag with a legal disclaimer the agent asks you to read and sign. This tag is often then placed in the luggage with the firearm. Sometimes I've had airline employees ask to see the actual firearm itself and ask me to set the tag in direct contact with the gun, but those are the outliers.
They often just ask to see the “secure container” and ask me to put the paper tag near or on the container within the luggage itself.
At this point, I find one of the 3 following scenarios takes place:
- The airline employee takes the luggage with the secured firearm and places it with all the other checked bags behind the ticket counter. No big deal.
- The airport policy is such that an airport or airline employee takes your special bag to a specific TSA office or checkpoint. You must wait on standby while TSA Agents scan and inspect your bag. Once complete, the bag gets added to the rest of the checked bags.
- The airport policy requires that you personally take the bag to an onsite TSA office or checkpoint and remain present while personnel scan and inspect it.
If you have ever experienced something different, please let me know in the comments below.
What Qualifies as Unloaded?
The TSA says defines the term “unloaded” to mean:
As defined by 49 CFR 1540.5, a loaded firearm has a live round of ammunition, or any component thereof, in the chamber or cylinder or in a magazine inserted in the firearm.
So ensure your firearm is empty and devoid of any live ammunition in any place or form.
What Qualifies as A Secure / Locked Container?
The TSA uses this language:
The container must completely secure the firearm from being accessed. Locked cases that can be easily opened are not permitted. Be aware that the container the firearm was in when purchased may not adequately secure the firearm when it is transported in checked baggage.
There are essentially 3 requirements:
- The container must completely secure the firearm from being accessed. The container can't be easily forced open. The container can't allow access to the gun without opening it.
- The container must be hard-sided. I've always taken this to mean (and have never had any information or experience to suggest otherwise) that any hard plastic or metal case qualifies as “hard-sided,” but a soft case does not. So if you could cut it open with a knife, it probably doesn't qualify and will not fly.
- The container must be locked. Any type of lock can qualify including, digital keypads, biometric, key, and combination locks.
Only the passenger should retain the key or combination to the lock unless TSA personnel request the key to open the firearm container to ensure compliance with TSA regulations. You may use any brand or type of lock to secure your firearm case, including TSA-recognized locks.
You CAN but do not need to use a TSA Lock. I personally do not recommend using a TSA lock as I prefer to be the ONLY person able to access the firearm. I'm sure TSA employees are generally trustworthy, but more than a few have been fired and criminally charged for stealing from passengers.
In the case of a smaller secure container placed in a bag or other piece of luggage (as opposed to a rifle case that is its own piece of luggage), you can lock the bag itself, but you would need to use a TSA lock on the bag.
People often ask me if the bag will get marked, flagged, or treated/handled differently than other checked bags. The answer is no. Frankly, that is better. It is more tempting for TSA and baggage handlers to steal your bag and gun if they knew which bags had guns.
I personally use a steel lockbox that is slim and doesn't take up much space. Here is a video where I compare the two models I recommend.
Can I bring Ammo on a Plane?
Ammunition can't go in carry-on baggage, but you may transport it in checked baggage. Firearm magazines and ammunition clips, whether loaded or empty, must be securely boxed or included within a hard-sided case containing an unloaded firearm. Small arms ammunition, including ammunition not exceeding .75 caliber and shotgun shells of any gauge, may be carried in the same hard-sided case as the firearm.
So essentially, if you have magazines, clips, or speed loaders, they need to be within the SAME locked and secured container as your unloaded firearm. It doesn't matter if they are loaded or empty.
That said, a box of ammunition can be, but not required to be, in that same locked container. It can be elsewhere in the checked luggage.
Further, according to 49 CFR 175.10, the ammunition must be secured and packed in boxes or another packaging specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition. A sock full of loose rounds or even just one loose round at the bottom of your bag is a deal-breaker and will not fly.
All ammunition must be securely packed. Best to just keep the ammo in the container it came in when you bought it.
Individual airlines may have limits on how much ammunition you can check (generally by the pound).
What Qualifies as A Firearm That Has to Be Checked?
The ATF has a definition of what is a firearm and what is not. It isn't a simple definition I can share here. On a case-by-case basis, the ATF points at something and says yes, that is or no, that is not a firearm. If it can fire a projectile with some sort of powder-based charge or propulsion, I would say you should assume it is a firearm and check it in following all of these procedures.
Also, note that I am not clear about the policy relating to certain firearm parts. The TSA explicitly says that optics (scopes etc.) are okay in carry-on bags, but they are not specific about what gun parts would and would not be okay. Therefore, I would always err on the side of caution and not try to carry on any firearm part.
However, it doesn't stop there. The TSA also states:
Replica firearms, including firearm replicas that are toys, may be transported in checked baggage only.
To be precise, they do NOT say that replicas, training guns, or toy guns have to be declared, secured, and transported following all the above procedures we just reviewed, but I would always err on the side of caution.
Your airsoft, SIRT, laser gun, training gun, blue gun, water pistol, or other replicas should NEVER go in a carry-on, and you should use your best judgment when deciding if it needs to be declared and/or secured in the checked luggage.
Domestic VS International VS Private Flights
Thus far, everything in this post addresses how to fly with a gun on domestic, commercial flights in the US. In other words, a flight going through a TSA security checkpoint originating and ending in the US.
According to the TSA, If you are traveling internationally with a firearm in checked baggage, please check the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website for information and requirements before travel.
Based on my limited experience and research on the procedures of checking a handgun on a flight to Canada, Mexico, or another country, I found there is a lot of complicated paperwork, and it may not even be approved. On the other hand, long guns are generally easier to get approved, especially in countries with a thriving hunting industry. You can find more information on that here.
Private air travel on private planes/jets is regulated differently than commercial travel. I know people who have private jets and keep them in private hangers that they either lease or own. There are still federal regulations related to these planes, but passengers don't go through a traditional TSA checkpoint for most of these flights, and firearms are often allowed.
There are different rules for wealthy travelers.
Individual Airports & Airlines Have Their Own Rules & Laws
All airlines and airports must comply with TSA guidelines, but they can also have their own rules and regulations.
Airports themselves are generally owned and operated by a city or county government. Therefore, even though the TSA may regulate the travel and have TSA personnel on-site, the laws that apply at and in that airport are determined and reflect the laws of that local jurisdiction. So, for example, the City of Denver makes the laws that matter at Denver International Airport, not Homeland Security.
Some airports have added enough red tape to the process of checking a firearm, making it virtually impossible to do legally. Therefore, I choose not to provide a comprehensive list as it would change, and I run a serious risk of leaving several out.
The takeaway is always to call/check with the airport and airline before arriving with your firearm in tow.
Beware of Flight Changes and Rerouting.
I had an incident in 2017 when my flight out of Manchester, NH, got canceled, and Delta decided to pay to send all the passengers via taxi down to Boston International. I checked on the rules and laws for the airport in Manchester, but not Boston. Thankfully, I knew enough about Boston to know that the transfer would be a problem.
As the Delta employee handed me my taxi voucher, I said I could not fly out of Boston. When she asked why not, I said: “I'm checking firearms.” She didn't bat an eye and immediately changed out the taxi voucher for a hotel voucher and put me on an outbound flight from Manchester the following morning.
Back in 2005, Gregg Revell was traveling from Salt Lake City to Pennsylvania. He had a connection in Newark, NJ, and due to a baggage error by the airline, he missed his connection. The mistake forced him to stay in Newark in a hotel until the following morning. He thus retrieved his checked bag and had to exit the airport to stay in the hotel. When he returned the next day to check in for his flight out of NJ, police arrested him for possessing a firearm without a valid NJ state license, despite following TSA guidelines when he initially checked in at the Salt Lake airport.
So be sure to check before you fly.
A Video Summary of Air Travel Considerations With A Firearm
I hope this answered any questions you had about how to fly with a gun.
Have you ever flown with a gun the right way before? The wrong way?
Leave a comment below on the experience you had.