Until recently, I’d never considered flying with personal firearms. It just seemed like too much of a hassle. Extra time at baggage, being harassed by the TSA… knowing my luck, Mohammed Atta gets right through, but yours truly gets put on a no-fly list because the TSA can’t be bothered to adhere to their own regulations. We all know that the government hates armed citizens and whatnot.
But my day job sent me on an extended trip to a not-so-safe part of the country and the group I was working with there highly recommended that, if I was legally able, I bring a firearm for self defense. When I got into this line of work, I promised my wife I would never end up on the news having been kidnapped or beheaded, so I decided I’d take their advice and figure out how to travel with a gun. Or, as it happened, gunS. Plural. You know, for an added degree of difficulty.
I decided to read up on the actual TSA regulations, which are surprisingly straightforward. I also checked my my airlines regulations on traveling with firearms. After that I went about preparing myself to fly with my guns.
Per the TSA Website:
- Guns must be checked luggage. If this is a surprise to you, perhaps you shouldn’t be considering traveling via the friendly skies with your guns. No carry-on guns or parts. It says you CAN carry-on things like rifle scopes, but come on, why would you even risk it?
- You MUST check in at the ticket counter – NOT the curbside skycap.
- Guns must be packed in a hard-sided, lockable container. That container can then be packed in something else like your suitcase (important later) but you can’t just roll your guns up in a sweathshirt and toss them in your duffle or soft-sided roll-aboard.
- Whatever they’re secured in must be locked in a container that is only accessible by you. Translated: don’t use a TSA lock on the container in which your guns are locked. Once TSA clears the container it’s not supposed to be accessible by anyone other than you.
- Guns MUST BE unloaded. That’s the most important thing, evidently.
- Ammo must be packed, to put it simply, in a box or case that keeps them from banging into each other. Factory boxes, reloading boxes, etc. are acceptable. Apparently, magazine are acceptable as well, so long as they’re not in the firearm. They can be loaded in your luggage, unlocked.
I could, theoretically, have used any of the hard plastics cases my guns came with. With sites like mycasebuilder.com I could have even made a custom insert to allow one case accommodate BOTH guns (My beloved Sig p239 and my Sig p290RS backup gun would be my traveling companions) I was going to take with me. But, after some thought, I wanted something that I could secure in my hotel room on the other end. I ended up going with a Gunvault MVB500 Microvault Biometric Pistol Gun Safe, which is their medium-sized offering in their biometric line. I could really care less about the biometric capability and won’t bother reviewing it here other than to say it’s just “okay” as far as opening quickly, reliably, etc. Important thing is that it’s keyed and I can keep the key with me. It also comes with a cable that can be wrapped around something (like the shelf in your closet) and secured to the safe. At best I would say this was a deterrent, not something that would stop a determined thief. It would keep a nosy hotel staff member out but if someone decided to go to work with cable locks and a tubular lock pick, they’d have access in short order.
My initial plan was to put the guns in the safe, put the safe and a box of ammo in my luggage and head to the airport. Luckily, once my safe arrived, I went ahead and packed everything as normal and with ONLY the safe (with 2 guns) and ammo in my luggage. I was already at like 28 lbs, leaving me only 22 lbs. of headspace for two+ weeks of clothes, toiletries, etc. I’m not a heavy packer but I don’t like to do laundry on the road.
Back to the drawing board.
Then it dawned on me: Why not put the locked GunVault in its own piece of checked luggage, with the ammo, my magazines, holsters, etc. and check it separately? I headed back to Amazon and, after doing some measuring, picked up a Pelican 1500 Case with Foam for Camera (Black)
and a couple Pelican 1506TSA PeliLock. The pelican came with Pick & Pluck Foam to make custom inserts so I pulled and plucked a perfect space for my safe, a slot for a box of ammo and a couple slots for my magazines.
Everything fit perfectly, tightly and very professional looking. I even had some pull-and-pluck scraps to fill in the air space around my guns in the GunVault to keep things from sliding around. As an aside, I believe that when you do something like this, it’s important that it looks good and “purposeful” and not like you just haphazardly tossed a couple guns in a pelican case and headed to the airport.
Before I headed off to the airport, I taped a business card on the top of the GunVault with ALL my information and put a printout that reads: “For access, please call…” with my name and number inside the Pelican on top of the GunVault. As one last measure, I put a huge sticker with my name and number OUTSIDE the Pelican case. I wanted no ambiguity over who’s case it was and how to get in touch with me once the case was out of my site. There are horror stories of over zealous TSA agents destroying non-TSA locks all over the internet. (This is what happens when you allow government agencies to unionize… but that’s a topic for another article)
Satisfied I had totally covered every possible contingency, at least with regards to factors I could control, I headed off to the airport.
At the Departure Airport
I live in a fairly big, not necessarily gun-friendly metropolitan area. In my head, I pictured walking up to the baggage counter and saying, “Good day to you, fine sir! I have some luggage I’d like to check. And also some firearms,” only to have the ticket agent smile back at me plastically whilst fumbling desperately under the counter for the button that summons SEAL Team 6 who would undoubtedly write about my takedown in their next best-selling book.
plenty unnecessarily early, I approached the ticket counter, handed the agent my boarding pass and photo ID, confirmed I was flying to where I was flying to and let the agent know that I had firearms to declare. Without batting an eye, he handed me an orange card to read and sign, which verified that the firearms were unloaded. I then put the card inside the Pelican, on top of the GunVault and latched everything shut. He finished my transaction and then he hand carried my Pelican over to the TSA screening area, where he told the agent that there were firearms that needed scanning. He then told me to wait until they cleared me and scurried away, very likely back to the counter to wait on the line of customers where were super pissed that the agent walked away with me. Thirty seconds later the TSA officer gave me a thumbs up and told me I was good to go. Phew!
Off to my gate I went, to wait for like 9 hours because I thought the above process was going to be far more arduous. So far so good.
Only additional note is that once I certified that the firearms were unloaded and locked the Pelican case (with TSA locks), I never touched that case again – airline representatives handed it to TSA who handed it to baggage personnel. Not really a surprise, but I certainly understand why they do it that way.
At the Arrival Airport
It occurred to me on touchdown at my final destination that I had no idea where my Pelican case was going to come out: the baggage carousel with everyone else’s luggage (which, while convenient seems a bit… unsafe) or someplace else. I’d just have to wait and see.
I arrived at baggage claim and waited for bags to arrive. When they did – *THUNK* – my Pelican case was the first one to tumble out. I grabbed my other bag and headed to the rental car where I quickly did an inventory. Everything made it!
I loaded up my mags, put my holsters on and headed to work.
I’d only add that I did make a connection through another state and was a little concerned – connections are always an additional failure point with regards to luggage. I needn’t have worried. With my airline’s mobile app (Delta), I was able to see my luggage arrive at the gate and get checked onto the plane.
The return flight was equally uneventful with two exceptions. When I checked in for my flight home, I was escorted to a back room where a TSA agent scanned my bag separately then handed it to a baggage handler to take directly to the plane. Again – once he cleared it I wasn’t permitted to touch it again. This process took about 20 minutes. When I arrived home, to my aforementioned large, not-particularly-gun-friendly metropolitan hometown, my Pelican case never came out onto the carousel. Swallowing panic, I walked over to the baggage office where they were, luckily, expecting me. My Pelican case was carried directly from the plane to the baggage office. They checked my ID, handed me my case and sent me on my way.
Is my setup overkill? Maybe. But they’re my guns and I had piece of mind every step of the way. All in all, it was about $230 in cases, safes and locks that I could have put away for my Sig P320 (It will be mine, oh yes, it will be mine). But my P239 is the firearm love of my life and if anything happened to her, well… I’d run right out and buy another one. To me, the Pelican case and GunVault were a cheap insurance policy.
I mentioned earlier that if you have the available weight balance, you can toss your locked gun container in your regular luggage. There is a theory online – and I have no data to back it up – that this virtually guarantees your luggage won’t be lost as airlines handle luggage containing guns specially. It makes sense having watched them handcarry my firearms everywhere. I can only imagine losing luggage containing firearms is, at a minimum, a huge pain in the ass for an airline, thus it seems logical that they go out of their way to make sure they don’t lose peoples’ guns.
My story is one datapoint. There are stories of people online who have much less pleasant experiences. My advice: study those experiences. In almost all of them the traveler did something wrong. They didn’t comply with an airline employee’s or TSA officer’s instructions when they asked to inspect the guns, perhaps. For the record, I agree, a ticket counter is an inappropriate place to whip a gun out but it’s an equally inappropriate place to start carrying on about your 2nd Amendment Rights like an asshole. Simply say something to the effect of, “Sir/Ma’am, I’m more than happy to open the case and allow you to inspect these guns to your heart’s content, however, could we find a more discrete place to do it? I’m well aware that not everyone loves guns as much as I do and I don’t want to upset my fellow passengers.” In that case – you’d come out looking like the good guy: a law-abiding passenger concerned about the feelings of others. Hell, the ticket agent might be so taken aback that there’s a customer who’s not a huge dickhead that they give you a free upgrade! Remember – you’re going to show up to the airport with plenty of time that such a detour will be of no consequence! Right?
And finally – know what the gun laws are where you’re landing. I think if got my checked bag and left the airport in, say, New York, I’d have been committing a felony. My concealed carry credentials from home wouldn’t do me a bit of good there.
Let me know if you have any questions or if I can be of any further assistance!