For the last several years I have been traveling by domestic airline with a handgun declared in my checked baggage. I initially thought the process would be a hassle, but I discovered that it is not as difficult as I had anticipated. As a certified law enforcement officer, you should always have access to a firearm.
Your authority to carry a concealed firearm as a “qualified law enforcement officer” or “qualified retired law enforcement officer” in any jurisdiction in the United States of America is granted via the Law Enforcement Officers’ Safety Act or LEOSA. Click on the link if you are not thoroughly versed in its regulations, which you need to be.
First off, consult the Transportation Security Administration’s regulations and those of your individual air carrier. This is easy to do on the Internet. You’ll see that a locked hard-sided container for the unloaded handgun is a must. This container cannot be easily pulled open to allow access the gun. Many manufacturer’s plastic gun cases will not pass the prying test. I have a GunVault NanoVault 200, which cost me under $35.00. It is a small metal safe with a cable that secures it to the frame of my suitcase.
Next, ammunition must be stored in a cardboard, wood, or metal container or in one specifically designed for ammunition. Since I travel frequently with my Smith & Wesson 442 or M&P340, I take a 20 round factory box of .38 cal. Speer Gold Dot Hollowpoints in the Short Barrel 135 grain +P load. This box will fit with the gun in the NanoVault, if necessary.
Bullets may not be stored in pistol magazines unless the magazines have a cap or device to fully enclose the rounds. Unloaded magazines are best stored with the gun in the safe. The NanoVault 200 is large enough to hold my Glock 23 and two magazines.
Now, about checking-in at the airport. Give yourself at least an extra 20 minutes prior to your usual arrival time. At the airline baggage counter (no curbside check-ins with a firearm), tell the ticket agent you are declaring an unloaded firearm in your checked luggage. Normally, they won’t bat an eye and will have you sign a declaration form to be placed on top of your gun safe inside the bag. On occasion, they have made me lock the declaration form inside the gun safe.
Sometimes a ticket agent will ask to visually examine the unloaded gun and ammo. I show them, if asked. Most often, they only inquire if the handgun is unloaded and let you lock it in the safe. Once the safe is secure, you can lock the bag. The lock on the outside of your bag should be TSA compliant (keyed so TSA can open your bag). TSA locks can be bought at any home improvement or hardware store. The lock to the gun safe must not be TSA compliant and you need to retain the key on your person.
Once your suitcase is locked they may just throw it on the regular baggage conveyor. At Tampa International Airport, you are escorted with the bag to a TSA screening area, where you wait for the suitcase to be either machine checked or hand searched. Once this is done you are free to go to the gate. In other airports, TSA screening is not at the check-in site. At McCarran in Las Vegas, they ask you to stand by a door near the ticket counter. If no one from TSA comes looking for you after 15 minutes, you may proceed to your gate.
Another possibility is a call to law enforcement. When I flew out of JFK in New York, the ticket agent summoned Port Authority Police when I said I was a police officer declaring an unloaded firearm in my checked luggage. The Port Authority police officer came and examined my LEO credentials. He said they make many arrests for violations of their local firearms possession laws at the airport. Remember, you are safe if you are compliant with LEOSA.
When my flight arrives at its destination, I try to get to baggage claim before the luggage does. Your suitcase should have no exterior signs there is a firearm inside, but as discreet as you try to be, other people on your flight may see the proceedings at the ticket counter. I don’t trust anyone anyway and would attempt to grab my bag right out of the chute even if it didn’t contain a gun.
I have heard of some cops traveling with printed copies of the TSA and airline regulations in case there is a conflict at the airport. Though I did this on my first flight, I have found this to be unnecessary in my travels. The most important things are to do your homework, buy the right safe and locks, and be prepared before you get to the airport. Happy trails!