Packing & the Friendly Skies What You Need to Know About Flying With Firearms

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In 2002, privacy
activist John Gilmore gained national press attention when he attempted
to fly to Washington, DC without showing identification in the airport.
It didn't go well. He was prevented from boarding his aircraft,
denied passage to our nation's capital, and ultimately prevented
from having a meeting with one of his Congressional representatives.
Thus, in one instance, this successful businessman and noted critic
of bureaucratic interference was denied the full extent of protections
afforded to him under the 1st and 4th Amendments
to our Constitution.

In 2007, I
began attempting to fly to various destinations while in possession
of firearms. I have faired rather better than Mr. Gilmore in terms
of my encounters with government functionaries and am pleased to
say that while many of our freedoms have suffered unconscionable
assaults in recent history, the right to keep and bear arms has
proven rather resilient… even when exercised in an environment that
most people incorrectly consider to be the pinnacle of a "gun
free" zone.

The plain fact
is, in the United States of America we have the right not only to
possess firearms but also the right to travel with them to any destination
we see fit. The Firearm Owner's Protection Act of 1986 contains
the Safe Passage provision, which explicitly elucidates that citizens
have the right to journey state to state with firearms as long as
they are locked and unloaded. This freedom of travel is unquestionable…
even in instances where a party may cross borders and pass through
jurisdictions with varied rules and regulations. As many of us who
live along or near the Eastern seaboard know, we can drive through
a state like New York with firearms even if they are not legal
in the state of New York… the jumble of incongruous and sometimes
draconian local laws is not a concern for the people who are merely
passing by.

Air travel
is accorded the same treatment under Federal Law, with the national
carriers being treated more or less like interstate highways. No
matter where the on-ramps and off-ramps are located, as long as
gun owners have their steel locked and unloaded, nothing is off-limits.
There are some tips and pointers, however, of which one should be
aware in order to make the process and painless and straightforward
as possible.

Federal
Standards

The Federal
Government, primarily in the form of the Transportation Security
Administration, sets forth a series of guidelines and policies concerning
how passengers my fly with firearms. For the most part, these standards
are rather loose. The government leaves it up to the airlines to
specify any additional considerations that they see fit. That can
sometimes be an issue (that is a topic which we will cover shortly)
and while I'm never a champion of government interference with private
entities, I wouldn't be averse to one single "armed passenger's
rights" standard imposed across all airlines. As common carriers,
they are subject to some regulation. Keeping all parties in line
with the bare minimum of rules as specified by the TSA would be
a fine thing, in this author's opinion.

According
to federal policy, passengers may travel with firearms as long as
they are unloaded and packed in a fully hard-sided case that is
locked and cannot be accessed by anyone except the passenger who
is checking said bag. Federal law also allows for eleven pounds
of ammunition. The TSA policies do not say much about how your ordinance
is to be packed, save for a prohibition of any "exposure"
of the rounds. Ammunition is a key sticking point with many of the
airlines, however, and we will cover this shortly.

What to
Expect at the Airport

The actual
procedure is surprisingly painless and uncomplicated, at least on
paper. Passengers whose luggage contains firearms show up at the
airport like any other traveler. They proceed to the check-in counter
for their airline and have their bags weighed and processed in the
routine manner. However, the luggage is not immediately taken back
to the bowels of the airport.

During check-in,
you inform the airline that you are traveling with firearms. This
should, naturally, be done sometime at the onset of the affair…
before someone signals a bag-thrower to toss your luggage on a conveyor
belt to be whisked away. When you alert your check-in agent that
you are traveling with firearms there is a bit of paperwork to handle.
A "declaration form" (typically, just an index card with
a carbon copy sheet affixed to the back side) is filled out with
minor details, such as the date and flight number. The passenger
signs this form and it is placed inside of the luggage bearing firearms.
The legal text on this paper simply indicates that you have alerted
the airline to the presence of firearms and assure that they are
unloaded.

Please note,
while some of these declaration forms have the appearance of a baggage
tag (occasionally they even bear loops of string) they are NOT to
be affixed to the outside of one's luggage EVER. This is a violation
of Federal Law, not to mention a terribly stupid invitation for
theft or baggage tampering. These forms belong INSIDE your luggage…
preferably on the very top where TSA officers or others would immediately
see them, indicating the presence of a firearm, no matter how deeply
it may be packed amid folded shirts and sundry supplies.

On occasion,
you will be asked to demonstrate your firearm's safe status. I have
more than once had the pleasure of dropping magazines, racking slides,
or breaking open the action on a piece of steel in front of many
other passengers. The pleasure I derive from this is not visceral,
and has little to do with bringing about a small, horrified look
of shock on any hoplophobes nearby (something that hardly ever happens,
I'm pleased to say) but comes from a deeper sense of citizenship
and civic duty that I shall discuss later.

Where the process
diverts somewhat from routine practice is the next step. While most
travelers would bid farewell to their bags at this point, you instead
proceed to a TSA screening area. These are typically nearby… you
may have seen them as you stroll through airport check-in halls.
Often these roped-off areas are seen processing "special"
baggage like oversized sports equipment, pet carriers, and the like.
However, while those bags typically sit idle until a TSA officer
is prepared to act on them, your luggage will receive immediate
treatment.

Because of
the fact that firearm-bearing bags may not travel through
the airport system unlocked, you stand by while the TSA performs
some cursory tests on your luggage. In my experience, they typically
just run things through a Rapiscan x-ray machine or perform an explosive
residue swab test and if nothing alerts you're on your way. If there
is a need for additional inspection, you are asked to unlock the
luggage and stand by while a brief hand-scan takes place. I should
note that in my experience, the TSA officers are much more
respectful of someone's belongings when that passenger is standing
right next to them, observing their actions.

When
everything is all clear, you are asked to ensure that your luggage
is locked properly and it is sent on its way through the airport
and ultimately to your final destination. No matter how many layovers,
plane changes, and other interruptions your journey involves… the
bags remain locked and no one is allowed to open them until they
make their way to your hands at the final baggage claim. This is
because of the fact that "TSA compliant" locks are not
to be used. Proper, heavy-duty padlocks are what one should employ
in this situation. Naturally, I have some models that I'm happy
to recommend.

It is important
to understand just how vulnerable your typical "hardware store"
padlocks are and how unsuited they are for this task. Picking attacks,
bump keying, shimming, and other methods of entry are easy to do
and, contrary to your typical street criminal attempting home invasion,
the people stealing from luggage are skilled enough to attempt
some of these tactics. Beyond this, the "TSA compliant"
locks are all master-keyed. In addition to being very weak and susceptible
to most common picking attacks, the master keys for these locks
are poorly controlled and copies exist in great number. I would
never trust my firearms with anything other than a "high security"
padlock obtained from a locksmith or online dealer.

Personally,
I always secure my belongings with Abloy Protec locks. This style
of rotating-disk mechanism is not only the closest I come to using
the word "unpickable" but they are of significantly robust
construction and operate smoothly under the most punishing conditions.
While heavy-duty models are available (and I sometimes will use
these on certain baggage) the Abloy 321 padlock, commonly known
as their "executive" model offers the same level of pick
protection in a small, economic package. The splendid web site securitysnobs.com
offers them for a mere $25 each.

Full disclosure
— while I have no direct professional affiliation with Mitch, the
individual who runs this business, he is a friend and we have an
established relationship of past commerce. He imports many of his
items from Dutch locksmiths, some of whom are also acquainted with
me through the physical security consulting world. I am happy to
see Mitch gain exposure and business, but I receive no financial
reward from your patronage of his site or my mention of it in this
piece. If you can find better prices elsewhere, please feel free
to seek them. Heh, but I'll tell you right now… you can't.

An interesting
fact of which many people are not aware pertains to what constitutes
a "firearm" that must be declared to the airlines and
locked. It is not just lethal guns used for self-defense that fall
under the purview of these regulations. Any device which expels
a projectile by means of a combustible propellant is a "firearm"
in the eyes of the Fed. As you may know, attempting to rob a bank
with a flare gun or recklessly discharging blanks from a starter
pistol in public can get you slapped with a gun charge just as if
you were brandishing a lethal weapon. The same holds true for air
travel… flare guns, blank guns, and even various related items are
all considered to be "firearms" under the law. All such
hardware is to be declared and locked properly.

While I have
not personally flown with bare, stripped receivers or NFA-tracked
items like suppressors, other individuals have. It might not be
understood by airline staff initially, but these items require the
same treatment. As many persons who shop on gunbroker.com are aware,
anything that requires an FFL to transfer between states is a "firearm"
subject to all relevant policies. While historical arms buffs may
be aware that black power items manufactured before the turn of
the century are not legally "firearms" I would not expect
airport staff or TSA officers to understand this distinction. If
flying with a Springfield Model 1842 or a Brown Bess, for the sake
of easy travel and to protect such fine pieces of history, follow
these procedures, declare them as firearms, and lock your luggage
fully.

Some of you
may have realized from the above text, that it is quite possible
to leverage these "nonstandard" firearms as a means to
allow locking of your luggage even if your ultimate destination
is in a region of the country unfriendly towards firearms. Flare
guns are legal in all fifty states with no paperwork and even high-quality
models are available as cheaply as $50. Google for the German Geco
Flare pistol to find listings from Sportsman's Guide and similar
outfits.

Problems
That Sometimes Arise

I wish I could
say that this is how things work one hundred percent of the time,
and that it has been nothing but smooth sailing through calm seas
when people have flown with firearms. Sadly, there are a number
of hiccups that can arise. For the most part, however, they are
easy to handle.

Uninformed
Staff

Airline staff
(and to a much lesser degree, TSA staffers) are sometimes
unfamiliar with the rules surrounding transportation of firearms.
The most common difficulties concern attempts to mark the outside
of luggage (either by affixing the declaration tag or by writing
on one's computer-printed luggage tag) or restrictions on how
locks should be applied to luggage. Such matters can be corrected
by standing one's ground and politely requesting a supervisor.
Having a copy of the pertinent rules and showing them often helps.
I have made a two-sided sheet summarizing
these rules available on my web site
. Some travelers I know
find it comforting to keep a copy (sometimes laminated) with them
when flying.

It is almost
self-evident where such uninformed staff are likely to be encountered.
Rural parts of the country have a rich firearms heritage. Small
airports in these regions are almost never a problem. Employees
in major urban centers where gun laws are strict and individuals
servicing flights to foreign destinations with repressive laws
are less likely to have encountered armed citizens in the past.

Airline
Policies

Here is a
matter of significant concern for me and a cause of many needless
headaches for countless armed travelers. A number of carriers
impose regulations and restrictions that go well beyond the Federal
standard, and violation of their rules can lead to large financial
penalties or denial of baggage outright. Most often, issues surrounding
the number of firearms being transported or the inclusion of ammunition
are what cause difficulty. As a helpful guide to sorting the dizzying
array of red tape, I have prepared a write-up on my web site that
shows each specific way that all airlines deviate from the basic
TSA standard. How their policies can affect you is outlined, and
(to simplify matters further) a basic "letter grade"
is assigned to each carrier as a reflection of how their rules
are written and how they treat the firearm issues in public statements.

The carriers
with sensible and accommodating policies include US Airways, SouthWest,
and Continental's stateside service. Among the worst airlines
are AirTran and especially Jet Blue and NorthWest Airlines. The
extent of these last two carriers' dislike of firearms is hard
to imagine. You can read full accounts of their public statements
and an analysis of their awful policies in the "Airline
Report Cards" section of my web site.

Distant
Screening Areas

In most airports,
the "secondary screening area" (where TSA officers will
give your luggage a once-over before you leave it in their care)
is relatively close to your check-in desk. To the end of a row
of counters or sometimes across the arrival hall just behind where
you are standing is typically the farthest you have to walk. If
you've shelled out three dollars for a Smart Carte or employed
a skycap for assistance, it's best to keep them around just in
case a longer journey is necessary.

On occasion
(particularly in the international wing of airports) there simply
is no secondary area. Bags are taken (locked) right at check-in,
and you will be paged if something alerts and you need to open
things up. (This can lead to awkward requests by TSA officers
asking you to surrender your key or combination to them so they
can take it to a secure area where your bag is waiting. This is
NOT legal. Do not part with your key, as it should remain in your
possession at all times. Escalate matters to a supervisor if necessary.)

Methods
of Locking Bags

Here is where
the greatest confusion presents itself concerning flying with
firearms. Depending on who you talk to, what web sites you consult,
and how a particular individual has been trained one can encounter
a litany of advice. The following is the best that I can offer
given both my research as well as my experience.

If you are
traveling with handguns, there is nothing particularly wrong with
using a small gun case. PLEASE NOTE, however, that while it may
be legal to place a small, locked gun case into a larger,
unlocked luggage item… this is NOT recommended. Every instance
of theft of a firearm from baggage of which I am aware has taken
place in specifically this type of scenario. Even if you have
a small pistol case, I beseech you to place it in a large hard-sided
case and place your lock on that case.

I should
mention… even if your smaller pistol case is able to be
locked, do not secure it. It is not unheard of for airport staff
or TSA officers to tell travelers that a locked inner case
precludes the need to lock one's outer case. I go a step
farther and make certain that my locks cannot even fit
on my inner pistol cases. Never give a bureaucrat an opportunity
to request that you leave your outer bag unlocked. (That means
no soft-sided luggage… not even partial hard-sided bags
are acceptable.)

Local
Law Enforcement

On very
rare occasions, police officers at airports (particularly
highly specialized units like port authority police or airport-specific
departments) are unfamiliar with the "Safe Passage"
rights of travelers under the FOPA. While this is highly atypical,
a handful of passengers have been detained if firearms in their
possession are prohibited by local law. Google the Gregg Revell
case of 2005 for more information about the worst such incident
on record. Again, this is by no means the norm, but you would
be well-served by familiarizing yourself with those facts and
having the contact information of a good lawyer.

(It is beyond
the scope of this article, but in this age one would almost consider
knowing an experienced firearms lawyer to be part of responsible
gun ownership. The defensive use of a firearm, even when fully-justified,
will all but guarantee you a long line of legal issues. For the
sake of your family, your property, and your well-being… be prepared
for any eventuality.)

No matter what
happens, remember… you are following the law and you have a right
to travel with your firearms. While the bulk of my travels have
been blissfully incident-free, once in a while I will notice an
aghast expression or quiet aside comment from nearby travelers.
In my mind, this is both a good thing and a bad thing.

Molōn
Labe

I am proud
of the firearms that I own. I am proud of my right to travel with
them. I am proud to be seen with them in public. I like the fact
that other citizens can see one of their ranks casually waiting
in a line or proceeding to a destination while clearly armed. Now,
I will admit that part of this involves the acute thrill of knowing
that one or two anti-gun types are quietly wringing their hands…
confronted with the plain reality of a freedom that they do not
understand or support. But there is something more, something much
more.

Most of all,
I enjoy traveling with firearms not because of the occasional chagrined
emotion it stirs up in the small-minded, but because of the lack
of emotion it so often elicits from those around me. The way I see
it, this is a very healthy aspect of a free society. Witnessing
people simply going about their lives while in possession of firearms
is a good thing, in my view.

There
is a very
powerful image
(left) that stuck with me from the first time
it scrolled across my screen. It is a photograph taken in a grocery
store in Switzerland. Looking down an aisle lined with canned goods
and produce, one sees a young man strolling away from the camera.
He is in the service (as are all able-bodied Swiss males aged between
19 and 31) and returning home from a day of drills and exercises.

Slung across
his back is his Sig 550 assault rifle. And around him, amid the
handful of citizens pushing shopping carts and squeezing loaves
of bread and reaching for jars of peas, all is normal.

To me, that
is the true sign of a society with healthy attitudes toward gun
possession. And that is what we contribute to every time we announce
to co-workers that we're going to the range after five o'clock…
every time our concealed carry piece peeks out from under a shirt
when we place a library book back on a high shelf… every time a
family of four headed to Disney World sees us with an M-14 or a
1911 laying in an open Pelican Case at the airport check-in desk.
Normalizing gun ownership is something I take pride in, and I will
continue to do so… until I can stroll into the local WaWa for a
hot dog with a rifle slung over my shoulder and no one around me
raises an eyebrow.

July
1, 2009

Deviant
Ollam [send him mail]
is a network and physical security auditor and lecturer. As
a member and director of the US division of TOOOL
(The Open Organization of Lockpickers) Deviant arranges lockpicking
workshops and speaks at security conferences, both around the country
and around the world. Deviant's
web site
contains diagrams, photos, and video recordings of
his lectures. The section
concerning firearms
plays host to further analysis of this topic,
including accounts from armed travelers describing how they were
treated. If you have a story to share, please take a quick glance
at Deviant's air
travel questionnaire
and send him an email… he'd love to share
the details of your trip with other gun owners.

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