Transporting your Guns State to State and By Air
By Karen MacNutt,
There is nothing rational about guns laws in the United States. Over one hundred years ago the Supreme Court held that the right to travel freely is a basic civil right; however, today you can not travel freely throughout the United States with your guns.
In a rational world, your gun license would be like your driver’s license. If your home state gave you a license to possess and carry a gun, every other state should recognize the license. This is not a public safety issue. One would think Congress would enact legislation requiring each state to recognize the licenses of other states. It has not done so. Individual states may also pass laws recognizing the licenses of other states. Such laws are called “reciprocity” laws. Although many states have reciprocity laws, many do not. The net result is that every time you, as a lawful gun owner, want to travel with your guns, you have to be very careful not to violate some local law. The fact that you are an interstate traveler, or that you have a license from your home state, will not save you from local prosecution.
From time to time we see stories about some poor gunowner who is arrested while traveling interstate. As some states have very severe and inflexible gun laws, make sure you know the law before you travel. Do not rely upon the advice of your home town police. Police often have the wrong answers. The NRA publishes a series of pamphlets on various state gun laws. The ATF also publishes a book on state and local gun laws. The ATF book is not published annually so it does get out of date. You can also check with the State Police of the states you will be traveling through. Often such information is on the official state web sites. Another good option is the website packing.org.
Before you travel with a gun, you must be sure: 1. You have all the proper licenses to possess the gun in the state in which you reside; 2. You have all the proper licenses to possess the gun in the state of your final destination. Plan ahead. Make sure you know the law and comply with it. Not only do you need to know the laws on possessing guns, but you also need to know how guns have to be transported or stored. Some states require certain guns be carried unloaded and cased. Some require trigger locks.
Most people know that they cannot take a gun onto an airplane or past the metal detectors in the airport. You also may not take chemical spray or ammunition beyond these points. Before you go through the metal detectors, make sure that you do not have any stray ammunition in the lining of your jacket or at the bottom of your carry-on luggage. Even an empty shell casing can spoil your day. Take the pepper spray out of you handbag and off your key chain before you head to the airport.
What do you do if you get to the terminal, stuff your hand into your jacket and come up with a .22 round or a can of pepper spray? You could pack it in your checked through luggage. Ammunition must “be securely packed in fiber, wood or metal boxes or other packaging specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition” and declared at the check-in counter. Spray must be packaged so that it will not accidentally discharge. It too must be declared. If it is too late to put these items in your checked through luggage, there is a “prohibited item” barrel just in front of the metal detectors. Regulations prohibit you from taking any container of liquid larger than 3 oz. beyond the metal detectors. On your way to the metal detectors, you will see a barrel filled with water bottles, shaving cream, hair spray, mouth wash and other such prohibited items. That is the place to dump anything that cannot go beyond the security line. Do not try to sneak things by the security station. Some airports also have commercial operations which will package and ship to your home prohibited items you discover too late.
Guns have to be transported unloaded and in your checked through luggage. When you check the bag, you must declare to the airline that there is a gun in the bag. The TSA regulations can be found at www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/prohibited.
Paint ball guns should be treated as real guns. The compressed air cylinder should not be attached for shipping. One 4 oz. container of chemical spray may be transported in the checked through luggage. The spray must have some kind of mechanism to prevent accidental discharge during transit.
Guns must be in a hard-sided container. The container must be locked.
“We recommend that you provide the key or combination to the security officer if he or she needs to open the container,” says the TSA website. “You should remain present during the screening to take the key back after the container is cleared. If you are not present and the security officer must open the container, we [TSA] or the airline will make a reasonable attempt to contact you. If we cannot contact you, the container will not be placed on the plane. Federal regulations prohibit unlocked gun cases (or cases with broken locks) on aircraft.”
At one time luggage containing guns had to be marked, “GUN.” Fortunately, that is no longer so. The case should not be so marked. I suggest that once the case has been screened, in addition to the lock, you seal the case with electrical ties or duct tape. The typical gun case lock (or suitcase lock) can break open during the rough handling luggage is subjected to. Some people will also place the gun case in a secondary container to make it less conspicuous or to increase its size to reduce the possibility of theft.
Ammunition should not be carried in clips, but rather in appropriate packing designed for the transportation of ammunition. It may be carried in the same box as the gun. You may not take black power or percussion caps onto an aircraft in any manner.
I use plastic electrical ties on all my luggage. They can be cut off if airport security wants access without damaging your luggage. They are sufficient to discourage casual theft. They will not discourage the determined thief but then nothing you can put on a suitcase will. The ties will prevent your bag from accidentally opening during transit. When you get to your destination, they are easily removed with a nail clipper and you can carry a supply for the return tip.
Before taking a gun to the airport, call your airline to make sure you know what their requirements are. Make sure the gun is checked through to your final destination. You do not want to claim the bag at any holdover or connecting flight location during your air travel. You do not want to claim the bag until you get to your final destination.
If you live in one state, and the airport is in a second state, you are subject to the laws in the second state even though you might consider yourself as having entered interstate travel. For example, if you live in New Hampshire, are flying to Alaska through Boston’s Logan Airport, and you take the airport shuttle from New Hampshire to Boston, when you check your luggage in at Boston and declare you are shipping a handgun, as required by federal law, you will be arrested if you do not have a Massachusetts license. If you do not have a Massachusetts license (or know someone with one who will transport for you), you may have to ship the gun to yourself using a freight service that will pick it up from your home and hold it for you at your final destination.
Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey are particularly bad states to pass through. If you check your luggage in, then find because of some delay that the airline is asking you to claim your luggage, do not do so. As soon as you take possession you could be arrested. Go to the baggage counter or to customer service. Explain that the baggage cannot leave airline custody. If that results in the bag missing the connection and arriving late, so be it. If they insist you take the bag, tell the clerk that he may be violating the law, could be arrested for the unlawful transfer of a firearm. That should get his or her attention. Ask for a supervisor. If you have to, ask for airport security. Explain to them that you can not take possession of the bag. Ask them to instruct you as to what you should do. They may be willing to escort you to wherever you have to go to re-check your bag. Keep calm. Whatever you do, do not start shouting, “I’ve got a gun.”
What happens if you have no warning? All of a sudden you see your gun case sitting on the floor of the terminal unattended. Or worse, what if the airline puts you up in a hotel and when you arrive, the bag is in your room?
You cannot hide what is in your bag. You have declared it. You must avoid taking possession of the bag. If you are still in the terminal, try to get an airline employee to place the bag in their baggage section. If nowhere else, with unclaimed luggage. If no one is around, try to contact airport security. If all else fails, get a Sky Cap to watch (or carry) the bag until you can contact airport security. Explain to them that you checked your luggage through with a properly declared firearm. Explain that airline has left the bag unsecured. Tell them you cannot take possession and you do not know what to do. If they tell you to just claim it, ask them to explain to you what the local law is on possessing guns without a local license.
If you take possession of the bag, when you try to check it in to continue your flight, you may be arrested if the state you are in does not recognize your home town license. It may also make a difference if you are transporting a long arm as opposed to a handgun. In Massachusetts, for example, an out-of-state resident does not need a license for a long arm but does for a handgun. This is why it is important for you to understand the laws of the states you will be traveling through, or in the case of a flight, likely to have to stop in.
The hotel is a harder question. If I were not certain it was legal for me to have the gun, I would leave the room as soon as I saw the bag. I would go to hotel security, explain that I can not take possession of the bag and request that their security people hold the gun in their safe until arrangements can be made. Give the guy a big tip. I would work with the hotel to determine the local law. Hotel security should know what it is. The hotel may be able help you to arrange for someone who is licensed in that state to carry your bag to the airport when it is time to leave. Even if you have to pay for an armed messenger to transport the gun for you, it is cheaper than paying a lawyer to appear in court.
Laws governing air travel with guns also govern travel on all interstate common carriers. It is the same if you take the train, the bus, stage coach or a boat. Guns must be unloaded, cased, and in checked through luggage and/or in the control of the operator of the vehicle.
A bus service or subway line serving a city or county that is entirely within one state is not covered. Thus, if you take the car ferry from Woods Hole, Massachusetts to Nantucket, Massachusetts, you are traveling within one state and are not governed by the interstate rules. If you take the Cape May ferry from Delaware to New Jersey, you are going interstate. You can not carry a gun on your person even if you are licensed in both states.
A number of years ago, the NRA was successful in getting federal legislation that gives some protection to interstate travelers. The law is a “defense” to state prosecution. That means you have to bring the federal law to the attention of state officials. It will not prevent you from being arrested. When you go to court, you have the burden of proving you are entitled to the federal law exemption.
The federal law states that if it is lawful for you to have a gun where your trip begins and where it ends, you may transport the gun interstate so long as it is unloaded and locked in the trunk of your car. If you do not have a trunk in your car, the gun must be inaccessible to the driver and/or passengers in the car. This is not a blanket waiver for people who claim they are traveling interstate. It is very specific.
Unless you are legal in both states, proving to a judge what the is in two different states may be more difficult than you think. You also have the problem of proving where your trip began and where you intended to end the journey. Just because you say that you started in Maine and were going to Florida does not mean anyone has to believe you. The burden of proof is on you, not on the police. Some people play fast and loose with this provision. They are taking a big risk. If you get into trouble, your lawyer will argue the fine line of the law. She may be successful. It will be expensive. It will be stressful. It is much better to stay well behind the fine line of the law.