Flying with a Handgun

Depending on which handgun you own, the manufacturer’s case may be all you need. This Springfield Armory case is built like a tank and has padlock holes.

While flying commercial airlines with rifles or shotguns is fairly straightforward, doing the same with handguns requires a little more planning and care. The good news is that there are several approaches you can take to flying with your handguns.

To understand the various ways that you can travel with handguns, it’s important to understand the legal requirements. I live in South Carolina, where the declaring a handgun to ticket agents and TSA officers can be somewhat like attending a gun show (“Hey, what are you traveling with today? Cool! My uncle bought one of those!”) If you live in other parts of the country, you might need to be a little more deliberate with your check-in process.

There are two sets of rules:those set by the TSA, and the policies of your airline. It's advisable to print copies of both before you go, because people seems to have different levels of understanding about what's correct procedure and what's not. The TSA requires that handguns be transported unloaded, in checked baggage, and stored in a hard-locking case. Federal Code mandates that you, and only you, maintain possession of the key or combination to the gun case throughout the duration of the trip.

There is no stipulation that your handgun case must travel separately from other suitcases, nor is there a requirement that can only carry the handgun in the locking hard case. This opens up three possibilities for you:

• You can buy a standalone handgun case that travels as a separate piece of checked luggage.

• You can use a locking hard case that travels inside of another piece of luggage.

• You can even buy a really big locking hard case and store your handgun(s) and the rest of your belongings in the same case.

Let’s take a look at some options in each of those choices.

This classic iM2200 handgun travel case from Pelican is plenty durable for the frequent traveler.

The Standalone Handgun Case

Legally, there are no size issues for a standalone gun case. It can be just large enough to contain your gun. Before you buy a small and portable gun case for separate check-in, consider that smaller can also mean easier to steal or misplace. You may choose the most secure case and locks available, but if it’s easy for someone just to heist the entire case, you risk being out a valuable handgun and a lot of hassle. The other consideration is that you may have to pay an extra baggage fee to the airline because the case represents a separate piece of checked luggage.

If you’re going to take this approach, a larger case is the way to go. That way, it’s less likely to get lost and there will be room to store multiple guns and your ammunition in the same case. That’s perfectly legal, provided the ammo is in factory or plastic boxes. It just needs to be stored so that loose rounds don’t bounce around. And remember, the gun has to be unloaded!

Both Plano (the fishing tackle box company) and Pelican have excellent options here. Plano makes cases that appear to be common briefcases but are actually lockable gun cases. The 1010404 DLX Four Pistol Case is a great example.

Plano has introduced a variety of gun cases recently, like this one.

If you're going to travel frequently, consider investing in a case that's built to take hard knocks. This Plano 108021 All Weather Large Pistol/Accessory Case has locking latches on three sides, so it's unlikely to pop open with abusive baggage handling.

The Pelican iM2200 Four Pistol Case is also a great option. It has foam cutouts ready for handgun placement. Travel cases don't get much tougher than this one.

The Case Within a Case

If you’re going to go with a small gun case, I recommend carrying it inside of another piece of checked luggage. There are no special marks on baggage tickets, so no one except you, the ticket agent, and the TSA officer will know that a gun case is inside of a larger suitcase. Regardless of the locking system on your luggage, the gun case inside will still need to be independently locked with a non-TSA lock. Remember that you and only you must maintain possession of keys or combination.

If you’re carrying a gun case inside of your luggage, one like this Plano model may be all you need.

(A TSA lock is one that opens with a universal “master” key that allows TSA agents to open the lock without the traveler’s key. Considering the facts that there are 50,000 TSA agents and the master key details are freely available on the Internet, you have to assume that anyone with the IQ of spackle will be able to open a TSA lock. It’s kind of like all combination locks having a “master” combination of 0-0-0. In other words, think of a TSA approved lock as an extra fastener and not a security device.)

When I use this approach, I like to use a cable bicycle lock to attach the interior gun case to the frame of the suitcase. This provides an extra security barrier that will help prevent someone from simply taking the handgun case out of your checked luggage. Many of the rolling suitcases have metal framework inside to which you can attach a bike lock cable. If you plan to travel with a handgun frequently using this approach, choose your luggage accordingly.

You have plenty of options for the case-within-a-case option. You don’t necessarily need a bombproof container because the interior gun case and your suitcase provide two layers of protection for your guns. However, you still need to make sure the case is sturdy and lockable. Depending on which handgun you own, it’s possible that the case that came with your gun is TSA ready. Specific requirements for a TSA gun case are simple. In their own words, the case must be a “hard-sided container.” A plastic or metal case with built-in locks or holes for locks is fine. Springfield Armory and Sig Sauer provide cases that are ready to go for air travel. I’ve also seen guns from Smith & Wesson that come from the factory in suitable cases for inside-the-suitcase air travel.

If you need to buy a case, it can be as simple as the Plano 1010137 SE Series Pistol Case.

It does not have integrated locks, but does have padlock loops on either side. That meets the requirements, and you just add your own locks.

This Plano 10104 Four Gun Case looks like an ordinary briefcase.

The Large Case

My favorite scenario takes full advantage of the fact that there is no regulation against carrying other items in your gun case. You can choose an oversized case that meets the gun storage requirements and secure all of your belongings. Because your gun case needs to be locked with non-TSA locks, that means you can secure all of your belongings, not just your handgun.

Luggage theft can happen to anyone. I know. Back in the 1990s, a Chicago O’Hare baggage handler (whom I hope suffers an eternal outbreak of bunions) stole my favorite $400 leather bomber jacket from my luggage. I’m still complaining about that one (just ask my wife). If you want to put a complete whammy block on luggage pilferers, use the big lockable case approach.

Here's how you do it. First, you'll need to choose a case big enough for your gun, ammo and regular travel load of clothing and toiletries. For the case itself, check out the Pelican 1510 Carry On Case.

One option is to carry everything, your gun and your clothes, in one big hard case like this Pelican 1510 Carry On Case. Then you can put a lock on it that TSA can't open.

Obviously you can't carry it onto the plane with a gun inside, but it's a great overall size for checking on short trips. It's got two wheels and a telescoping handle so you can tote it around just like a regular suitcase. Check out other models like the Pelican 1560 or 1620 if you need more room. You will need to be cognizant of overall weight with the one large case approach. The case itself can weigh 15 to 20 pounds, and most airlines charge extra if your checked bag weighs more than 50 pounds total.

Here’s the catch with any of the above models: Many of the Pelican cases in this category come with huge foam inserts. It will be up to you to cut and slice compartments for your gun and ammunition. The TSA will want to see that the gun is stored securely, and not just floundering around with your socks. For a home project, you can use an electric carving knife to cut foam to your desires. I recommend keeping one end of the case intact with cutouts for the gun, and hollowing out the opposite end for clothes and such. Just be sure to leave enough foam in place to support the gun section.

You’ll need to carry this GunVault MVB500 inside a suitcase, but you’ll have a portable gun safe at your destination.

Extra Bonus Tip!

Some TSA outposts at some airports (Bend, Oregon, I'm talking to you!) have acquired a really nasty habit. When you check in, they’ll want to inspect your gun in their secure area, where you cannot go. They may ask for your keys so they can do this. The problem is that technically speaking, you are violating federal law by surrendering the keys to your gun case to anyone. There is no “exemption” for TSA employees, although they’ll insist that they have the right to do this because they work for the government. Winning that argument with TSA agents while you’re trying to catch a flight is an iffy proposition at best.

To circumvent this potential problem, I suggest using combination locks on your gun case. Yes, they can ask for a combination, but sharing a rotary combination procedure verbally is a pain, and they'll be less likely to insist on opening your case outside of your presence. Even better, use a gun case that has a biometric lock like a fingerprint scanner. Then you can smile while you politely say that there's no key or combination to share—you have to be present. (If you're feeling particularly adventurous, you can ask if they would like you to cut off your finger.) Check out the MVB500 Biometric Home/Travel gun box at GunVault. It comes with a four-foot security cable so you can lock it to the inside of your luggage and to a piece of furniture where you're staying.