In some respects, flying with sporting firearms has been easier since Sept. 11, 2001. Tighter controls of checked firearms by the airlines and Transportation Security Administration lessen the chance firearms cases will disappear from unattended baggage transition or claim areas.
Still, the idea of taking a lethal weapon to the airport is serious stuff. Do it right, and your sporting vacation is off to a bang-up start. Screw it up, regardless of your military status, and you could spend hours chatting with ill-tempered federal agents in some claustrophobic airport cubicle.
Here are some surefire tips to help ensure your firearms travel safely, legally and relatively hassle-free with you. A disclaimer: It's always best to verify laws and regulations before you travel. Also, these tips don't cover firearms carried under a concealed-weapons permit.
Basically, all firearms must be unloaded in a locked container and declared to the airline when checking in for a flight. Firearms travel as checked baggage.
Upon declaring your firearm, a TSA representative will inspect the container and place an orange card inside to verify his inspection.
You used to have to keep ammunition separate from the firearm, but not anymore, although some airlines may still insist on it.
The TSA allows up to 11 pounds of ammunition. Ensure ammo is packed in appropriate containers. Factory load boxes and small plastic or metal containers popular with reloaders typically are fine. You can keep ammo in a detached magazine only if it is completely enclosed by "securely covering the exposed portions of the magazine or by securely placing the magazine in a pouch, holder, holster or lanyard," the TSA advises.
Muzzleloaders are increasingly popular but more difficult to fly with because rules prohibit having black powder or percussion caps and primers in carry-on or checked baggage. Violations can result in criminal prosecution and civil penalties of up to $7,500 per violation. Airlines also have specific considerations in addition to TSA rules. See http://www.tsa.gov">http://www.tsa.gov.
Some essential tips:
• Arrive a little early for the flight — you may need to wait for a TSA agent, especially if there are multiple individuals traveling with firearms. Remove the bolt from bolt-action rifles. Remove any detachable magazines. Consider breaking down shotguns, or at least removing the barrel from the receiver. Be polite, friendly and serious.
• Ensure connecting flights allow enough time for your luggage to be transferred. This can vary depending on the airport's efficiency, weather and other variables.
• One technique I've used for years (since the time my guns were stolen) is forgoing the standard firearm case — some used to call it a "steal-me-first" case — and using a hard-shell golf bag case, which also meets the requirement for a hard-sided, lockable case. The betting is gun thieves have less use for a Ping putter than a .300 Win Mag. The bigger case also lets me pack additional gear around the rifle, which optimizes checked baggage.
• If you shoot a newer or somewhat nonstandard caliber, or have a favorite brand of ammunition, consider shipping a spare supply to yourself at your destination. That way, if your gun shows up but your ammo doesn't, you won't be stuck. Many rural sporting goods stores only carry widely used ammo. Finding .30-06 rounds is usually pretty easy; locating .300 Remington Ultra Mag could be another story.
• Check out the airline's liability limits, the maximum value of reimbursement for lost or stolen luggage, and consider buying additional insurance, either from the airline or through your homeowner's or renter's policies.
Air travel within the U.S. follows straightforward procedures. Traveling internationally, though, can involve numerous complicated laws, forms and procedures.
Good outfitters understand how to help hunters get from the U.S. to their destination, but for the hunter winging it alone, always check with a country's embassy in the U.S. or other appropriate authority to ensure you have access to the latest information.
An important requirement for international travel is making sure the firearms you leave America with are logged on Customs Form 4457 and filed with the Customs and Border Protection folks. This proves you had these guns when you left and that they aren't imports you obtained on your trip.
Most air travel for hunters occurs within North America. Canada has required visiting hunters to file a "Firearms Declaration" with a customs officer upon entry since 1998. Many firearms, other than those considered traditional single-shot, bolt-action or semiautomatic variants, are prohibited or restricted.
Descriptive information about each firearm being brought into the country will be required (i.e., make, model, serial number, caliber/gauge). The declaration is good for 60 days and costs $50 Canadian.
For more information on bringing firearms into Canada, contact the Canada Firearms Centre at (800) 731-4000.
The TSA spells out the do's and don'ts for flying with firearms on its Web site (http://www.tsa.gov, type "firearms" into the search box at the upper left).
Whether flying or driving into Mexico, firearms and ammo are restricted. You're allowed two sporting rifles or shotguns with up to 50 rounds of ammo for each. According to the National Rifle Association, a tourist permit must be first obtained from the Mexican Consulate having jurisdiction over the area. Mexican immigration officials place a firearms stamp on this permit at the point of entry.
"A certificate of good conduct issued by the prospective hunter's local police department, proof of citizenship, a passport, five passport size photos, a hunting services agreement with the Mexican Secretary of Urban Development and Ecology (issued by the Mexican Forestry and Wildlife office), and a military permit (issued by the Military Post and valid for only 90 days) are all required to be in the hunter's possession while carrying the firearms," according to the NRA.
Again, it's best to verify latest procedures with the Mexican Embassy or Consular Office before traveling.
Forget about it. Amtrak prohibits traveling with any firearms, ammunition or explosives, including checked baggage.
The National Rifle Association has an excellent online guide to legally transporting personally-owned firearms for hunting, competitive shooting, vacationing or changing residences between states. The address is http://www.nraila.org/GunLaws/">http://www.nraila.org/GunLaws/
Particularly useful is the overview of the many state-unique requirements and prohibitions. Handgun restrictions are particularly diverse and restrictive.
For example, illegally having a firearm on you or under your control in a vehicle, whether it's loaded or unloaded, in Massachusetts will net you a mandatory one-year jail sentence. Nonresidents transporting rifles and shotguns into or through Massachusetts need to make sure the guns are unloaded, cased, and locked in the vehicle's trunk.
But, a little further north in New England, Vermont allows a person to "freely and lawfully carry (openly or concealed) a firearm without a permit, as long as it is done without the intent or avowed purpose of injuring another person," according to the NRA's state-by-state review.
Firearms owners need to understand their rights. Although federal law restricts a number of individuals from transporting firearms across state lines, convicted felons or dishonorably discharged veterans, for example, a provision of federal law provides top cover against some state laws or local ordinances.
The NRA reports that federal law entitles a person "to transport a firearm from any place where he may lawfully possess it to any other place where he may lawfully possess such firearm if the firearm is unloaded and in the trunk. In vehicles without a trunk, the unloaded firearm shall be in a locked container other than the glove compartment or console."
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also has a detailed "Frequently Asked Questions" page on its web site, http://www.atf.gov/firearms/faq/index.htm.
The emphasis is on common sense travel — don't have a gun anywhere within immediate reach, including under the seat or in the glove box or console or you could find yourself contrary to a state law or ordinance. Having ammo separate from the firearm is also advised. Don't have a magazine loaded, even a detachable. Most states consider a loaded gun in a glove box or console to be concealed, which may be illegal.
Firearms carried for sporting or hunting purposes are usually no big deal, especially when transported in safe, responsible fashion, but it is important for American citizen gun owners to understand their rights within the United States.
The NRA, as the nation's premier defender of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives the following advice in its online guide to travelers motoring with firearms: "Although the authorities may search anywhere within your reach without a search warrant after a valid stop, they may not open and search closed luggage without probable cause to believe evidence of a crime will be found, particularly when it is in a locked storage area or trunk of a vehicle, unless you consent.
"You have a right not to consent. Furthermore, although you may be required to produce a driver's license, vehicle registration, and, perhaps, proof of automobile insurance, you have a right to remain silent."
On military installations
Possession and travel with privately-owned firearms is tightly restricted on military installations. Direct questions to the installation's Provost Marshal Office or other law enforcement authority for the installation before trying to pass through the gates with your favorite scattergun or .45 ACP handgun.