A situation might arise where you need to travel via air with your weapon. Maybe you want to do some shooting with a family member or friend when you visit them, or you might be traveling to a shooting competition. Whatever the reason, you need to go through airports and on planes to get to your destination.
This guide answers many common questions related to flying with guns and ammo, including tips for arriving safely at your destination and ensuring smoother travels along the way.
Before we get too far, it's important to note here that the information provided is not legal advice. It's all sourced from the TSA. Regardless of the information contained herein, the TSA always advises you to check with any airports before flying to determine that location's rules.
Can I Travel With Guns and Ammo?
The short answer to that question is yes. However, as you have likely guessed, it isn't as simple as showing up locked and loaded and hopping on the plane.
You want to transport you and your weapons safely, not cause a panic, so remember to do everything possible to mitigate issues for yourself. Unfortunately, it's quite commonplace in the world in which we live for some people to be scared of firearms. Anyone carrying a gun should take precautions to ensure they don't do anything to cause unnecessary or unwanted attention.
How to Travel With Firearms
The TSA-approved process for traveling with a gun and ammo is fairly simple and straightforward. According to the TSA, you are able to transport firearms in a locked, hard-sided container as checked baggage only. This means you cannot bring it as a carry-on, and you cannot transport firearms in soft cases.
The hard container rule actually helps you in the long run, as hard-shell travel containers protect your firearms from the damage of transportation and help prevent theft.
The firearm must also be unloaded. Per the United States Code of Federal Regulations, 49 CFR 1540.5, a loaded firearm is defined as "a firearm that has a live round of ammunition, or any component thereof, in the chamber or cylinder or in a magazine inserted in the firearm." What this means is that your firearm must be completely incapable of firing a round. There can be absolutely no rounds in the chamber, and it cannot have an empty magazine in it.
When you arrive at your airline ticket counter, you must declare the firearm and/or ammunition when checking your other luggage. The container you have your firearm in must completely secure it and not allow access during transportation. Any sort of locked case that has easy-open features are not permitted. It's also important to be aware that the container your gun was in when you bought it may not be enough to sufficiently secure the firearm when it's transported in checked baggage.
When locking your travel container, it's a good idea to use a lock with a key. TSA does allow for both combination locks and key locks to secure your case. However, TSA may ask for access to your locked case. It's easier, not to mention safer, to hand them your key than it is to communicate your combination verbally or in writing (which could compromise your security).
Do not ever give the key to anyone other than TSA, and then only if asked. Keep the key with you and secure at all times during your trip.
You must also ensure the lock — whether combination or key — is an official TSA-approved lock. Otherwise, your firearms storage may not meet standards, and you might be denied the ability to travel with your guns.
How to Travel With Firearm Parts and Accessories
Firearm parts must also travel in checked baggage. This apples to magazines, bolt carriers, firing pins, and even toy replicas. If it belongs to a gun, goes on a gun, or even resembles a gun, it goes in your checked baggage.
There is one exception to this rule: the scope. Rifle scopes are allowed to travel with you in your carry-on baggage, which is a good thing. Sometimes baggage gets tossed around roughly, or worse, mistreated by handlers. As such, sensitive optics made from finely ground glass may not fare well, even in a hard case. Mercifully, your high-priced precision optics can be spared that flying experience and can be safely kept with you inside the cabin.
How to Travel With Ammo
Ammunition is classified in the same manner by TSA as your firearms are. It must be in checked baggage and in hard-shell containers. Unfortunately, your magazines do not count as hard-backed containers, so you cannot simply put loaded magazines in a duffel bag and check it. The reason for this is that magazines have an open end, and TSA requires that the ammunition be completely enclosed within the hard container. Ammunition must be locked as well, and the same locking standards apply here as they do with the firearms themselves.
There is another standard to keep in mind when traveling with ammunition, and that is weight. Be sure to check with the airline you'll be using to see what their weight restrictions are for checked bags. Ammo can be pretty heavy, especially when packed in large quantities, and you don't want to be denied a flight or have to choose between paying an exorbitant fee or leaving your ammo behind because your checked baggage weighs too much.
Take extra precautions when traveling with firearms out of the country. You'll need to comply with TSA regulations within the United States as well as rules for any locations you travel through. Check the firearms laws for the country you are traveling to and contact U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to get input as well. A Customs and Border Patrol agent can assist you with information regarding your international destination and your return back home. You definitely don't want to go through all that travel only to lose your firearms and ammunition at the port of reentry because of a simple error.
Best Practices for Traveling With Guns and Ammo
Aside from declaring your weapons and ammunition at the checked baggage counter and ensuring you follow the TSA guidelines, there are a few other best practices to keep in mind. First, be sure to call ahead to let the airline know you're coming and that you have firearms and ammo. If something has changed, the airline can let you know then.
Take the opportunity to verify all the TSA and airline regulation information during the call to save yourself time later. Be aware of your travel itinerary as well; if you will be disembarking and the luggage isn't staying on the plane but coming with you to your next flight, you will need to declare the weapons all over again at the new airline.
It's also a good idea to check the laws of the state and locality to which you will be traveling, because what is legal where you live may not be legal in your destination location. California, for example, has completely different regulations than New Hampshire does. Even localities within states may have differing ordinances regarding firearms, so you can be assured that a town in a different state will.
Always be sure to comply with local law enforcement as you travel to avoid any unnecessary issues. Miscommunications can certainly be exacerbated by the presence of a firearm, so be sure to closely follow any instructions from law enforcement. The important thing in all these interactions is clear, open communication. Be as up front as possible at all times and everything will go much smoother.
If you have questions or concerns about the trip or traveling with guns, reach out to the TSA contact center at (855) 787-2227. The contact center is an authoritative source for up-to-the minute, accurate information. The TSA recommends calling 72 hours before you plan to travel.
Whether you're taking your first trip with your guns or you've traveled with them for years, it's a good idea to stay up to date on all airline and TSA regulations to avoid any extra headaches.