Traveling with sporting firearms isn’t getting easier. Part of that could be intentional, but part of the problem is that many ticket agents aren’t sure of the rules and sometimes the folks enforcing the rules, from TSA to Customs officers, also aren’t always sure of their own rules.
Some time back, coming into the U.S. in Newark, Donna got a Customs agent who absolutely insisted she needed to show her “firearms registration” paperwork. The guy simply wasn’t willing to accept that we don’t have firearms registration across the United States. It took a supervisor and a mad dash to the plane to sort it out. Obviously, it’s a really bad idea to argue with these folks, but it helps a lot if you know the rules.
When checking in for a flight, I lead with my chin. It’s almost a litany: “I have sporting firearms in this case…I have ammunition in this bag…less than five kilograms (11 pounds)…in original factory container (whew)!” That usually gets things off on a good footing. In the U.S., airlines generally want ammo to be separate from the firearms—even though TSA’s rules say it can be together—but can be in checked baggage (original factory containers; less than 11 pounds).
It’s a bit different overseas. In Europe and South Africa, for instance, the ammo generally needs to be in its own separate locked container, and in Europe you can expect to pay a separate fee for your gun case. Today I always put my ammunition in a lockable container in my duffel—I use a plastic box with a hasp. I have a lock and key inside it, but I don’t lock it unless asked to. I used to, but after several locks got cut during inspection, I got the message.
Exactly what locks should be used is open to debate. I’ve tried the “TSA” locks, but they seem flimsy and, in any case, TSA doesn’t always have the keys and these locks are not (yet) required. I use padlocks with keys, others use combinations, and every airport has a different protocol. Sometimes the ticket agent escorts you to TSA, sometimes you take it yourself, sometimes it goes down the chute and you wait around for a few minutes in case they need keys or combinations to look inside. Just don’t walk away until you’re sure it’s cleared!
Although we don’t have general firearms registration in this country, there is one little piece of paper that is absolutely essential when taking firearms out of (and back into) the U.S. It’s our U.S. Customs Form 4457. This is an amazingly useless (and useful) piece of paper. It’s the same form really organized people use to record valuable items such as camera and jewelry that they’re taking out of the country to prove they had it when they left and thus avoid paying duty upon return. Record is the proper word, not register, because U.S. Customs keeps no record of this document. It takes about three minutes to get one at any Customs office (just bring the firearms in unloaded and cased). I’m about three hours from the nearest U.S. Customs office so I’ve blustered my way through without a 4457 many times. Theoretically a bill of sale will suffice, but I don’t do that anymore! These days we are routinely expected to produce it when coming back through. Though not 100 percent, this is normal and it’s a whole lot simpler and quicker if you have it! Also, that little 4457, unrecorded though it is, serves as a “U.S. gun permit” in most countries throughout the world.
The actual gun case we use these days requires discussion. This has been the only source of difficulty I’ve had in recent years. TSA’s wording is “completely secure”—but that’s open to local interpretation. I go through a hard gun case every couple of years—the professional baggage smashers at the airlines are hard on them. I had one that had seen too many trips and was cracked on one corner, and I barely got through. Another time I had long-shank locks on a gun case, and the TSA folks thought there was too much play…it wasn’t “secure.” This could have been a major problem, but a kind TSA officer had some locks lying in a drawer. Most of them really are pretty good folks just trying to do their jobs.
Another time we had a Blaser taken down in its attaché-style luggage case with three combination locks. That, too, was judged “insecure.” Supervisor time. We got through it, but in the future I think I’ll stick with standard hard gun cases! Which brand doesn’t matter, so long as it’s fully lockable.
There is a new wrinkle that theoretically went into force on January 1st, 2017. Most hard gun cases have matching holes for at least four locks. I’ve never used more than two, on the outermost holes. With a gun case in good condition and tight-fitting locks, I’ve never been questioned. However, daughter Brittany got turned away in an airport earlier this year because her case had places for four locks and she only had two. They told her it was a new “policy.” I asked my TSA friends at our airport and they knew nothing about it—yet. However, on my last trip with a firearm, just before Christmas, the TSA folks in the Atlanta airport told me flatly: “Starting January 1st ‘they’ want all holes on a gun case to be filled with locks.” They didn’t tell me who ‘they’ were, but their instructions were crystal clear.
I doubt if you’ll find that as a written rule—as of January 27 it is not. TSA’s website continues to say: “The container must completely secure the firearm from being accessed.” So there’s no official change, but this may well be a new interpretation. I’m not certain that every TSA office in every airport will get the word. However, TSA has the last say on what “secure” means. So here’s my New Year’s Resolution: When I travel with firearms all the lock holes on my gun case will be filled with locks!–Craig Boddington