The Vacation From Hell: What You Need to Know About Traveling With a Gun

(Photo: U.S. LawShield)

It’s 9:30 PM, and you’re 20 minutes from your hotel. It’s been a long day of driving, and you can’t wait to flop face-first into your nice and warm hotel bed. This is your fourth state in three days, and you’ve begun to lose track of where you are. Then it happens: flashing red and blue lights in your rearview mirror. Were you speeding? Did you drift a little out of your lane? It doesn’t matter, because you’re getting pulled over—and you have a legally concealed firearm in the car. Quick: Which state are you in? Does it even honor your carry permit or handgun license? Do you have a duty to inform the officer under this state’s laws? You have no idea. Traveling across state lines with a gun can be perilous. Unfortunately, concealed carry permits and handgun licenses aren’t like driver’s licenses, so your South Carolina Concealed Weapon Permit might not be honored in the state where you are waiting for the officer to walk up to your window. This article will explore how to get you and your gun from Point A to Point B safely (and legally).

Driving Across State Lines and the Second Amendment

Many gun owners advocate driving, even on long trips, as the best way to travel with a gun. But is that true, exactly? Unfortunately, no. Many states have wildly different gun laws—some ban hollow-point ammunition outside of the home. And others have “high-capacity” magazine restrictions. This means if you are caught in one of these gun-hostile states in violation of their laws, you could be thrown in jail…talk about a bad ending to a vacation.

Luckily, federal law provides a “traveling” defense intended to protect gun owners as they travel through (not to) such states. This defense is known as the Firearm Owners Protection Act (“FOPA”), and it can be found in 18 U.S.C. § 926A.

FOPA has three basic requirements for a person to have a strong legal defense when carrying a firearm through a hostile state: 1) the firearm must be lawful to possess where you start and finish your trip; 2) the firearm is unloaded and neither the firearm nor any ammunition being transported is readily accessible or is directly accessible from the passenger compartment of such transporting vehicle: provided, that in the case of a vehicle without a compartment separate from the driver’s compartment the firearm or ammunition shall be contained in a locked container other than the glove compartment or console; and 3) you must be “traveling.”

The legal definition of “traveling” under FOPA is anything but clear. Different courts have ruled inconsistently on what it means. One fellow took a brief nap in a bank parking lot in New Jersey on his way from Maine, and even though he was legal to possess and transport his gun from his point of origin to his destination, his nap resulted in a five year prison sentence. Unfortunately, merely possessing his specific firearm in New Jersey was illegal, and he paid a steep price for not knowing the law. Had he not stopped “traveling,” he may have had a defense.

Even if you follow FOPA to the letter of the law, it is an affirmative defense. This means FOPA may be asserted as a defense at the TRIAL phase of the process—which can be MONTHS (or years) after an arrest in a gun-unfriendly state. A traveler may only assert their FOPA protection once they battle their way through the legal process and end up pleading their case before the judge or jury in the unfriendly jurisdiction.

Travel quickly (without speeding), safely, and directly through a gun-hostile state to best avoid having to raise FOPA as a legal defense.

Know the Laws of Every State You’re Traveling Through

It’s imperative to take the time to understand the laws of each of the states you are going to travel through with a firearm.

Unfortunately, even if you have a license to carry or a handgun permit issued by your home state, there is currently NO national reciprocity. It is very important to remember when you are physically located in another state, you are subject to that state’s laws—even those which may impact your Second Amendment rights.

There is no standardization of gun laws within the 50 individual states (not to mention Native American Reservations and Lands). In some states, it’s illegal for a non-resident to even possess a firearm in the passenger compartment of their vehicle!

Making things even more complex, different states have different laws regarding the Castle Doctrine and the duty to retreat (or stand your ground) before using force or deadly force.

What About Flying With a Firearm?

If you plan on flying with a firearm on a commercial airline, follow these three steps: 1) check and declare the firearm in your luggage; 2) keep the firearm in your checked baggage in a locked, hard-sided case; and 3) make sure that the firearm itself is unloaded and there is no free-floating ammunition in your bag. Further, individual airlines often have odd requirements on top of the Transportation Security Administration (“TSA”) rules, so be sure to call ahead to your airline to be prepared before you make it to the check-in counter.

The TSA provides this guidance:

  1. The firearm must be unloaded.
    1. The firearm must be in a locked, hard-sided container and transported as checked baggage only. You may use any brand or type of lock to secure your firearm case, including TSA-recognized locks. But only you should retain the key!
    1. Ammunition must be securely boxed or included within a hard-sided case containing an unloaded firearm and transported as checked baggage only. Either way, the ammunition must be packaged in a box specifically designed to carry ammunition. You cannot use firearm magazines or clips for packing ammunition unless they completely enclose the ammunition. Firearm magazines and ammunition clips, whether loaded or empty, must be boxed or included within a hard-sided, locked case.
    1. Declare each firearm at the check-in counter each time you present it for transport as checked baggage.

Many times, the agent will want to ensure that the gun is unloaded and will probably direct you to lock the hard-sided container in their presence once their inspection is complete. These requirements apply to checked baggage. What cannot go into your carry-on? All firearms, ammunition, firearm parts, magazines, bolts, firing pins, and replicas of firearms (including toys) must be in checked baggage. What can go in your carry-on? A rifle scope!

Before your trip, contact your specific airline(s) and ask what requirements they have for transporting firearms and if they have any additional restrictions beyond the TSA requirements. Make sure you arrive at the airport with plenty of time to go through the TSA declaration process!

Keep in mind if you do not follow these strict requirements, you could be subject to federal criminal prosecution (a hefty fine and potential prison time) AND a civil fine of up to $10,000 per violation by the TSA.

You must always follow the laws of the state where you find yourself. Flying into an airport is no exception. Use extreme caution if your flight is diverted and lands in a gun-hostile state or even in a state that does not recognize your license or permit to carry a handgun. When in doubt, do not claim your luggage. Above all, always check the laws in every state before taking possession of your firearm or attempting to carry!

Attorney Emily Taylor has more travel tips for gun owners. Click HERE to watch her short but detailed video presentation.

For more information on how to protect yourself, join U.S. LawShield today!

About the author: U.S. LawShield Our organization traces its roots to 2009, when a group of pioneering lawyers became fed up with the hostility and abuse in the legal system directed towards responsible gun owners. They saw innocent people suffering the terrible consequences of someone else’s choice to commit crime. And to make matters worse, those people were tied up in the legal system, struggling to defend themselves. Innocent people were experiencing financial duress, bankruptcy—or worst of all, going to jail.The Second Amendment states “…the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” And yet, every day, our founders saw innocent, responsible gun owners experiencing mistreatment in the legal system—as if they were the ones that had done something wrong. To fight these injustices, our founders chose to stand up for the rights of the American people and become a champion for good and the voice of justice. That’s when the idea for our company was born: the first concealed weapon legal defense program to truly provide Legal Defense for Self-Defense.Our business was born in Texas and continues today from our headquarters in Houston, Texas. For many years, we provided our program to law-abiding residents of Texas and was known as Texas LawShield®. Demand for services existed well-beyond the state of Texas and our team expanded to other states. Along the way, we took on the name U.S. LawShield®.Today, we are serving members in the majority of states. While we are honored that our focus and mission have really resonated with so many people – literally attracting hundreds of thousands across the country, we will never forget what brought us together, why we exist to serve members and we will always stay close to our Texas roots. It is said the people of Texas have some unique customs and traditions like independence, self-reliance, a can-do spirit, and a big heart (caring for one another). We work to convey this in all we do for our members.

{ 12 comments… add one }
  • El Paladin March 8, 2021, 5:07 pm

    Kudos, Emily! Very well-written, thank you! Y’all really need a current, “Condensed Firearms Laws of The 50 States”–type book. Study beforehand, and keep w/ you, in case one of joe’bama’s “Neanderthal”-persuasion officers confronts you. Warning,…these books can go obsolete quickly, if the state legislature goes more communist, in the aftermath of another, stolen election! I know it’s hard, esp. if it’s “your job”, but I just ‘bite the bullet’, and boycott the heck out of socio-marxist, states. The risks today are worse than ever! El Paladin

  • John Parker March 8, 2021, 1:13 pm

    I was informed that it was Legally ok to carry a hand gun ( C.C.W) if you have a federal license, in all states. Is this information true or not ? Thankyou. J.P.

  • Douglas March 6, 2021, 6:30 am

    Never tell a pig your carrying. And never consent to a search. If they ask if you have any weapons in the vehicle, say I don’t have anything illegal in my vehicle.

    • SD DENTON March 8, 2021, 9:21 am

      While there may be some that actually are pigs on the police force, most are not. Show some respect

      • Dan April 5, 2021, 2:08 am

        Respect is earned, you cop sucker.

  • Jerry March 5, 2021, 3:06 pm

    I have both an IL ant Utah permit. When I travel, I take only 10 rd mags and no hollowpoint ammo. I will never willingly travel to New York or New Jersey, or Mass. The laws are diverse and often unfair. Did you know that possession or a laser side is a crime in Chicago (Cook County)? I must unload and case my weapon when travelling through New Mexico and South Carolina. I’m sure there are other “gotcha” states I don’t know about yet. God bless and keep fighting.

    • Michael Keim March 8, 2021, 12:57 pm

      You’re wrong about carrying your handgun in a vehicle in New Mexico. The law in NM states you can carry open or concealed in your vehicle without a permit. I live in NM part of the year. Check out their website

  • Kalashnikov Dude March 5, 2021, 1:47 pm

    Seems to me there’s an act of Congress from way back in 1985 which was supposed to fix this problem for good and all. We call it FOPA, or May 1986 for short. The people who signed it into law called it Firearms Owners Protection Act. It was supposed to protect firearms owners from exactly this. Instead, it made criminals out of citizens who are just exercising their absolute right to keep and bear arms. And made a whole class of “arms” inaccessible to We The People who have an absolute right to keep and bear these arms. This was and remains legislative malpractice, and is illegal under our US Constitution. Remember, this was 1985. And some of these political hacks and tyrants are still holding their office in 2021! Unacceptable. These are the kinds of criminal legislators who must be held to account for their tyranny and legislative malpractice. Our US Constitution never enumerated the power to disarm American citizens, or tell We The People what kinds of “arms” are acceptable to the government. “Shall Not” are two of the most powerful words in our legal language even today. “Shall Not” as in Shall Not Be Infringed. I’m ready to stand and fight to death for mine, and the right of future generations to keep and bear arms as our US Constitution prescribes. Are the rest of you just all talk? Or maybe you’re expect the NRA to do this for you, with a small donation and membership dues? How’s that working for you?

  • Charles Baker March 5, 2021, 9:46 am

    The comma’s are invisible!! However, ,,,, I still saw them.
    So,,,,, New Jersey,,,, New York,,,,,, Mass. (BTW Mass. is probably short for,,, Massachusetts)

  • Bob C. March 5, 2021, 7:13 am

    One individual checked his weapon in a checked baggage on a plane, and it was all legally done, and he flew to a state where it was all legal as well. But the overloaded cargo was broken up during a stop to spread it out and diverted to another plane during the stop, and when the plane with his baggage stopped in New York (even though the passenger never stopped or landed in New York on his own plane), he was charged with a serious New York crime. Even though you are in one place on one plane, if your weapon ends up in another place in a cargo area, you will be issued an arrest warrant with jail time if an unfriendly state is used along the way.

  • Richard March 5, 2021, 5:42 am

    I’d like some clarification on the “diverted to New Jersey New York” statement.

  • DAVID MILLER March 3, 2021, 8:43 am

    Good luck if your plane is diverted to New Jersey New York Mass. go to jail directly to jail

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