Is It Legal to Fly With a Firearm?
You're planning a trip and want to take your firearm with you, but you're flying on a commercial airplane. Can you take the gun on the plane with you? Yes, you can fly on a commercial airline with your firearm! There are, however, specific requirements to take your firearm on a plane.
How to pack your gun
According to the Transportation Security Administration ("TSA"), to take your firearm on a plane, you need to unload your gun and put it in a locked, hard-sided container which must travel as checked baggage only. Many firearm cases do not meet the minimum size requirements (e.g., handgun case), in which case the container will go inside of a larger piece of checked luggage.
When you get to the airport to check your luggage, you will need to declare that you have a gun in your suitcase. The airline personnel will most likely ask to see your gun to ensure that it is unloaded. All firearm parts, including magazines, clips, bolts, and firing pins, must be packed in your checked luggage. The only firearm accessory that is permitted in your carry-on bag is a rifle scope or optic. See 49 U.S.C. § 46505(b). Once the inspection is complete, the agent will typically direct you to lock your firearm case in their presence and then place it on the conveyor belt to be transported to your aircraft or request you place the locked case inside of a larger piece of checked luggage.
Once you land at your destination, you will pick up your bag from the baggage claim like everyone else; your bag does not go to any special pick-up location. Each airline can make its own policies regarding checking firearms, so it is important to call your airline ahead of time to check their gun policy. Declaring a firearm typically doesn't take much longer than the normal process of checking a bag; however, you will want to make sure you get to the airport a little earlier than normal just to make sure you don't miss your flight.
What about ammunition?
You can pack ammo in your checked luggage as well, and may keep it stored in the same locked container as the firearm. You cannot have free-floating ammunition in your bag. The ammo is not legally required to be in the original packaging, but that is a safe way to pack it. Magazines and clips, whether loaded or unloaded, must be securely boxed, or included in the same hard-sided container as the unloaded firearm. See 49 CFR 175.10 (a)(8).
What happens if I accidentally leave a gun in my carry-on bag?
Leaving a gun in a bag and then using that bag as your carry-on is something that happens quite frequently. This is why it is very important not to use your range bag as a carry-on bag and, ladies, always double-check your purses before heading to the airport. If you mistakenly leave your handgun in your carry-on bag and you have a valid License to Carry a Handgun ("LTC"), you may not be arrested. Texas Penal Code Sections 46.03(e-1) and (e-2) create a defense to prosecution and arrest if you have a valid LTC and accidentally carry your handgun to the screening area of the airport and leave immediately once you are made aware that you have a handgun with you. We call this the "airport oopsie" defense. Now, this doesn't stop TSA from sending you a fine in the mail later for this mistake. The fine for accidentally bringing a loaded gun to security could be as high as $13,910. Typically, we see those who have made this mistake receive a civil demand letter 3 months to a year after the incident with a fine of around $4,000. So, while you may not get arrested if you have an LTC, there still might be a hefty fine to pay.
If you do NOT have an LTC and you are found with a firearm in your carry-on, you will be arrested for a third degree felony for Unlawful Carrying of a Firearm (in addition to that hefty fine you will receive from TSA). See Tex. Penal Code § 46.03(a)(5). With the passage of Texas Constitutional Carry (The Firearm Carry Act of 2021) effective September 1, 2021, we will likely see an increase in arrests for this situation.
General considerations for traveling with a firearm
Each state has different laws on the possession and carrying of a firearm. It is vital that you check the laws in the state that you are traveling to before you travel. Some states have reciprocity with Texas, which means they will recognize a valid Texas LTC in their state. 21 states now allow for constitutional carry. However, some of these states only allow their residents to constitutionally carry and still require a valid license or permit for visitors to carry a gun.
There are states that have VERY strict gun laws and have essentially outlawed the possession of guns by non-residents in their state. The states to watch out for are New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and California. If you try to fly into one of these states with a gun, you will most likely be arrested when you land and try to take possession of your bag containing the firearm. The airline will not prevent you from checking your gun at the airport to fly into one of these gun-unfriendly states though. If you are not arrested when you land, you will be arrested when you try to check the firearm at the airport on your way back. Sometimes you may not plan on landing in a gun-hostile state. If your flight is diverted unexpectedly to one of these gun-unfriendly states, refuse to take possession of your baggage. Ask the airline to send your bag on to your destination for you. Taking possession of your bag could result in your arrest, even though you had no intention of landing in that state.
Traveling with your gun can be a simple and pleasant experience. It is important to make sure you know the laws before you travel though to make sure when you leave on vacation, you don't come back on probation.
Author: Leslie Rebescher
DISCLAIMER: The information on this website does not contain legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship. Every case is different, and this material is not a substitute for, and does not replace the advice or representation of, a licensed attorney.