Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Flying With Guns

I have blogged before about flying with firearms here and here and today Snowflakes In Hell linked to a Volokh Conspiracy post on flying with guns, so I thought I might add my own experiences.

I have carried a handgun in my checked luggage several dozen times since 9/11. Each time has been into or out of my "home" airport, Washington's Reagan National. And I've never had a problem. Here's what happens.

Get to the airline counter and go through the automated check-in process. Then, when speaking to the airline counter personnel, tell them, "I have an unloaded firearm to check." They will produce a little form for you to sign. They keep the white copy. They will ask to see the gun(s) to establish that they are in fact unloaded. I have already put a cable-tie through the action of each gun to demonstrate visually that the gun is unloaded. Otherwise, the ticket agent may ask you to pick up the gun and show that the chamber and magazine well are empty; some passengers might see this and find it alarming, so I try to avoid it with the cable ties. I have never been escorted to a private area to "show empty", but apparently others have; procedures seem to vary a little bit at different airports.

Then the ticket agent will put the red copy of the form in the locked box with the gun. I have never known them to tie the tag to the trigger guard. Then you lock the case, and it must be a hard case, and you keep the key. A combination lock is OK, too, although I have never used one. And don't use one of those "TSA-approved" locks; I'm talking about the locks where the TSA has a master key. The TSA wants the passenger ONLY to have the key or combination.

If you have ammunition with you, it must be packaged in its original container. I put each ammo box inside a heavy-duty zip-lock freezer bag and then put a strong rubber band around the bag. The purpose of this is to prevent loose rounds from getting free and rolling around in the plane's cargo bay. You should tell the ticket agent that you have ammunition in your other bag; the gun and the ammo may not be transported in the same container, but only the gun needs to be locked up. The agent may or may not ask to inspect the ammo, or they may simply ask you if the ammo is in its original packaging. I had one ticket agent actually open the ammo box and visually inspect the rounds, but usually all they want is your verbal assurance that all is well. On one occasion I arrived at my destination and found that my luggage had taken a hard "hit" and the box of Winchester White Box 9mm had been crushed and loose rounds were among my clothes. So after that, I started using the freezer bags.

At this point the ticket agent will hand you your boarding pass and baggage claim tickets. At DCA, the agent will walk with you and all of your baggage to the TSA X-Ray station, which is just a few feet away. The ticket agent will explain the situation to the TSA Supervisor. The TSA will put your bags on their X-Ray conveyor and examine them. Sometimes they seem to make this into a "training op": the TSA supervisor stands behind the X-Ray operator and they point at the screen and speak to each other. Maybe they are saying, "Here's what a real gun, from a real passenger, might look like." I dunno. The TSA may also at that point open your bags, all of them, for a visual inspection. And at that point they will ask you for the key or combination. It takes less than five minutes, but you are required to stand there while they do it. After the inspection they will return your keys to you and wish you a pleasant flight. One TSA agent was a gunny and wanted to talk shop! I was transporting a 9mm Glock and a 10mm Witness and he wanted to know how I liked them.

Then you proceed to the security screening area for access to the boarding gate.

At Indianapolis the procedure is a little different. After the ticket agent places the red ticket in your gun case, you lock it up and the ticket agent will issue you a little written notice and staple it to your boarding pass. The ticket agent will put all of your bags on the conveyor and tell you to proceed to the security screening area. After you pass through the screening area, go to the TSA kiosk and tell them that you have checked a gun and they'll ask you to wait while they summon a TSA baggage inspector. He will take your key and go down into the bowels of the building and examine your baggage, then return with the key. At that point you can proceed to the boarding gate. They do it this way at Indy because they have the TSA X-Ray screening area in the baggage handling area, not in the passenger terminal itself as they do in Washington.

Picking up your baggage at your destination is routine: no extra checks or procedures. This actually seems kind of lax to me, because there is my gun, going around on the baggage carousel, and anybody could just pick it up and walk off with it. For this reason, I lock my gun inside a steel case (from Brownell's, about $30) and put that case inside a small nondescript Samsonite suitcase, in this instance a "make-up" case. But so many trips through the mill have bashed my Samsonite case pretty badly and it may have to be retired soon.

A few clarifications:

1) Unload and pack up your gun and ammo at home - don't bring the gun to the airport and try to unload it there!

2) Double-check your baggage for loose rounds at home before you pack. This includes your gun box. I observed one TSA agent checking the foam padding inside the gun box. My heart stopped. I had never thought of that.

3) Don't wear any clothes from the range when you fly - you would be surprised where some of those ejected shell casings can hide: shirt pockets, pants pockets, pant cuffs, holster, range bags, etc.

4) I have been through those "puffer" machines a half-dozen times, after having been at the range the day before, with negative results. The TSA used to use 'em at Indy, but never in Washington, and I have read that they have been retired.

5) These are my own experiences, and aren't categorical - I'm no expert.

6) Have a written record of the serial numbers of the guns with you in case they don't turn up at your destination - it just might expedite their recovery. Maybe.

Here's a funny video from a hacker who is a frequent flyer and carries often:


Roberta X said...

Great report!

I found Ollam's website about flying with firearms: http://deviating.net/firearms/packing/

Old NFO said...

I fly a lot with mine also, but you do something I will NEVER do, that is give the key to TSA and let them open/handle my firearm out of my sight... If you go read 49CFR that is actually prohibited.

Turk Turon said...

Rx: Thanks!

Old NFO: Yeah, it is a violation to do it out of my sight, but the folks at Indy are so ...avuncular, they're just so doggone nice and polite that I haven't been able to get up enough steam to complain about it.

Anonymous said...

"You should tell the ticket agent that you have ammunition in your other bag; the gun and the ammo may not be transported in the same container, but only the gun needs to be locked up."

I believe you can have one piece of checked luggage with both ammo and gun inside but the ammo can't be in the same hard-sided container inside that piece of luggage.