The idea of flying with a firearm can sound intimidating, especially if you've never done it before. It's actually pretty straightforward - you just need to understand and follow a few regulations when you pack your gun (and accessories), and then make sure you're checking in your gun properly when you get to the airport.
Whether your destination is a relative’s house for the holidays or you're headed to an out of state shooting match, traveling with a firearm doesn't have to be hard. If you follow the following regulations and procedures, you'll be able to get yourself and your firearm through the process in a relatively short amount of time.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) gives the most straightforward information about the regulations in regards to packing a firearm for air travel. Rule #1 - you may ONLY transport your firearm in checked baggage. The firearm must be unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container which prohibits any access. You may be able to use the hard-sided container your gun came with, you'll need to check it to see if it meets the requirements (lockable and can't be opened at all when locked). If your existing case doesn't meet those guidelines, you'll need to purchase a gun case designed for air travel.
If you are carrying a rifle or shotgun that will not fit in your regular checked bag, the locked, hard-sided container itself will be checked as a separate bag. Also, you may carry multiple firearms in the hard-sided container (they don't need to be packed individually in multiple hard-sided containers).
While your checked bag can be locked with a TSA lock, you should not use TSA approved locks for your case. TSA members possess master keys for TSA approved locks so they can open and inspect your baggage. However, you should be the only one with a key to open your separate case that holds your firearm. When purchasing locks, make sure you have a lock for each lockable area (they won't accept your case if you don't).
Your magazines must also be “securely boxed” or placed in the same container as your firearm, but not IN the firearm itself. Mags are not allowed in carry-on bags. This is also true for other firearms parts such as bolts or firing pins. The one firearm part that is allowed in a carry-on bag is a rifle scope.
So you place your unloaded firearm in an appropriate hard-sided container, lock the container, and place it in your checked baggage. Once you arrive at the airport, you will be required to check in with an agent (not self check-in) because you will need to declare that a firearm is in your checked bag. You’ll have to complete a firearm declaration card, that you will then place inside the hard-sided container before you lock it again. The airline agent should not handle your firearm at all. If they feel it needs further inspection, they are required to request the assistance of a law enforcement official.
After your bag containing the firearm is checked in, you may be asked to wait at a designated area before you go through security - generally for 10-15 minutes, but that would depend on how busy TSA is. This is in case TSA decides that they need to look inside the gun container. They’ll need to retrieve the key from you in order to do that. If the time elapses and you have not been asked for a key, you are free to proceed through security. You should never surrender your keys to anyone during the check-in/security screening process, they should stay with you through your entire journey.
Ammunition always must be packed into your checked baggage and cannot be placed in your carry on. Ammunition up to .75 caliber and all shotgun shells can be placed in the original cardboard packaging or can also be packed in a wood, plastic or metal box designed to carry ammunition. It can also be packaged within the same hard-sided case as your firearm but still must be in a box and not loose. Magazines may also be used to transport ammunition as long as the magazine fully encloses the ammunition, but as stated earlier, the magazines must be in the hard-sided locked box.
In addition to the government regulations on traveling with a firearm that is enforced by the TSA, individual airlines may also have some additional rules. It is a good idea to check with your airline to make sure you are in compliance with additional rules they may have. Usually, this information can be found on the airline website. Many of the additional rules deal with weight limitations, including the maximum amount of ammo you're allowed to travel with (11 pounds is a common maximum weight). If you are traveling to a competition, you may easily be over the specified weight limit for ammunition. Many major matches allow for some type of ammunition shipping to assist competitors who may be flying to participate. Check with the Match Director for your match to see if you can ship ammunition separately and directly to the match.
The agent who accepts your firearms declaration and sends your checked bag on its way has no concern about the local firearms laws in your destination state. It is vitally important that you check the firearms laws in any state you’ll be traveling to or even through. In some cases, the airport may be in a state adjacent to the state you will actually be visiting. You need to familiarize yourself with the laws in both of those states. It’s not a bad idea to go ahead and check the laws in surrounding states, just in case. Your flight may be diverted in an emergency to a state other than your destination state.
There are multiple reports of another type of issue involving differing state laws. Citizens have declared a firearm to fly to New York or New Jersey without issue, but were arrested when declaring their firearm when they were leaving because they didn’t have the appropriate state certification to possess a firearm. Cover your bases and check the firearms laws in the states you will be visiting and surrounding states so you don’t accidentally break the law.
Flying with your firearms may seem complicated and daunting. Usually, the process goes through without a hitch. Don’t expect trouble when it comes to firearms on flights but pack some patience and allow some extra time, just in case. There are some stories about travelers who have had issues but really those troubles do not happen that frequently. Arm yourself with information in addition to your firearm, follow the rules and you shouldn’t have any problems.