One of the amazing tools that American firearms owners have at their disposal that we often overlook is freedom!We have the freedom to travel and hunt, compete, or just enjoy activities with firearms. When we travel to other countries, or even around the USA, there are some things to be aware of that work to keep you and your firearms safe. I’m going to share some of the things my family does to keep our guns safe when we travel.
First, know the rules. Whether it’s driving through a US state or city that isn’t gun-friendly, or travelling to a country outside of the US with firearms, knowing what you can and cannot do is paramount!
For travel inside the US, we always pack our guns unloaded, separate from ammunition, and make sure that they comply with local laws. When we fly, we ensure we follow the airline rules, and know TSA rules and maintain control of the keys to our firearms. We do not make ourselves targets for theft by advertising guns in our car via bumper stickers and decals. In fact, we even tend to cover our gun cases with pillows, blankets, and the other bags that we bring into the hotel on the luggage cart. Not that we have anything to hide, but we make an effort not to advertise that we have something valuable in our room. We lock small firearms inside the hotel room safe when we can. Another item I also carry is a small, locking handgun case that I can put pistols or valuables in and secure inside a hotel room safe, or cable lock to the bed. We NEVER leave guns in the vehicle overnight and have heard too many horror stories from shooters who leave guns in vehicles. It’s just a bad idea - don’t do it. We often will nap in our van if getting a hotel room and hauling all the guns in would be for only a few hours. By the time we bring our guns inside, we are so awake it seems wasted effort. My personal philosophy has been to nap in the van, and take that money we saved and get a nice breakfast - less stress, more happy bellies.
For travel outside the US, we have to do more work leading up to a trip. Permits from the country you visit are generally required, as is a US Customs form ( form 4457) obtained by taking your firearm to the customs office nearby before you leave on your trip. Always call ahead. The customs office usually appreciates this and often will tell you where to park or what entrance to use. But that form is good as long as you own the gun. Laminate it and stick it in a file for the next time you travel. If you are hunting or competing with your gun, hunting permits or match invitations will tend to be sent by the agencies you are working with. Usually when you arrive at your destination, you show those to the customs office of the country you are visiting, along with your USA issued permit. Most of the US doesn’t require a permit to own a gun, but places like Russia want to see one. You can write your local sheriff and ask for a letter stating, “Citizen X is a gun owner in good standing, travelling with the firearms listed.” This will simply help you navigate countries and language barriers where people do not understand the 2nd Amendment and that US citizens do not need permits. We did not need that for Italy and France, but it would have helped the language barrier in Italy.
You also need to learn the process for what to do when you arrive with your firearms in another country. Never assume your guns will be taken to oversize luggage - sometimes they come out with regular baggage. So eyes on the regular baggage claim and eyes looking at oversize baggage is a good strategy. But know whether you have to go to customs with them, or any other stops after you retrieve your bags. In Italy, we had to go to the police station inside the airport. Russia was a big room with lots of paperwork. France was pretty laid back.
Local laws when traveling are also an issue overseas. Some countries require trigger locks. Some do not permit you to take your firearm anywhere but from airport to range lock-up. Some permit travel only hotel to range, and that means sight-seeing is out unless you arrange a storage facility at your competition venue. So due diligence is important before you travel! Some countries require that you record how much ammunition you will bring on your permit.
A couple big issues we regularly see people worried about with flying and firearms:
Ammo: if in doubt, separate it from the gun into your other checked bags. Usually, a passenger is allowed 11 pounds. But, check with your airline and know their rules. Many USA flights allow the ammo to be in mags or in your hard-sided case with the gun, but some do not.
Keys: while none of us want to hand our keys over to TSA, and they shouldn’t be opening the case without the owner present, sometimes this will happen. You have to decide if you want to call their supervisor and make a stink, or make your flight. There are a lot of uneducated airline clerks and TSA agents. It’s why I prefer to drive in the US.
Airlines and permission: for many out of the country flights, you need to notify your airline that you are flying with guns, even if they are allowed. So as you reserve your flight, ask the question. And call back one month out to make sure that you don’t need special permission. Aeroflot & American Airlines are two I know of that require special permission for international travel with firearms.
Fly direct: When you can, take a direct flight to your destination. The odds of lost bags, airlines not transferring baggage or firearms due to communication issues on permits and rules are lower if you go through one carrier. I can speak from experience that it is much less stressful!
JFK and O’Hare airports: I’ve flown through each with guns. O’Hare isn’t Chicago. You just check in like normal and don’t drive to Chicago. For JFK, I have only transferred flights there. The policy is to go to baggage, and get your bags, go re-check in at ticket counter. But do this with security. Find them as soon as you get off the plane, tell them you are travelling with a firearm and have to check in again at your airline’s counter after retrieving bag from luggage. They walked with us the entire way and were very helpful!
Whatever your travel purpose, make sure you communicate with those planning the event that you are attending to be sure you have all the correct paperwork and know all the procedures that you need to comply with. It can save a headache or anxiety and leave you better prepared to enjoy your competition or hunt!