Willie Nelson may not be able to restrain his desire to go “On the Road Again” but I have no trouble, because traveling with firearms is difficult and full of hassle. It requires a knowledge of laws and regulations that are not always easy to find.
So, step one is to determine how you’re going.
There are two reasonable ways to travel with firearms. One is by your own vehicle, and the other is by aircraft. You may not be aware, but you cannot travel with a firearm by train. Firearms on trains are only allowed in checked baggage, and if the train your on doesn’t allow for checked baggage, then you’re committing a federal crime. So, first rule: no trains.
Next, if you’re traveling by car, be sure to travel only in states that allow your CCW permit reciprocity. For example, traveling from Indiana to Missouri takes you right through the Peoples Republic of Illinois which does not recognize anyone else’s CCW permits. You either have to get a permit as a non-resident (with the full application of the state’s anal-probe) or you have to lock your unloaded firearms in a secure carry case, chain that case to something immovable in your trunk, and then lock your trunk.
Similarly, don’t even bother traveling to California because your permit is not valid there, and more importantly, if you gun shoots more than a few bullets at a time, it probably violates one of their 365 different gun laws. Sure you could risk it and just carry anyway, but then you risk getting thrown into prison with real criminals, and who wants that?
Once you rule out those states where you have no permit reciprocity, you’re in good shape and can plan your route by car fairly easily. Just make sure to avoid the west and east coasts, and Illinois and Minnesota.
Should you wish to travel by aircraft, congratulations, you have additional concerns. You absolutely do not wish to book travel on any aircraft or flight plan that routes you through Illinois, New York, New Jersey or California. If your aircraft lands there, you could be stranded there, and in some of those states your pistol may not be legal. And, in fact, if you go to check in your luggage in New York and declare your pistol (see below) you may wind up being arrested. This because New York does not consider an aircraft to be a vehicle (same with New Jersey) and hence does not give effect to federal laws providing safe harbors for transportation of firearms in vehicles.
Once you’ve determined that you can travel from point A to point B without having to through any of the “We’re Petrified of Guns” states, half the battle is won. Buy a pistol transport case.
Unload your firearm and lock back the slide
Place it in the case and lock it with a padlock.
I would add that I frequently use a steel cable to secure the firearm to the luggage itself (by taking it around the extendable handle in the back) so that it doesn’t develop wings and fly off on its own.
When you get to the airport check in counter, declare your firearm to the attendant. He or she will prepare a firearms declaration listing your name, flight number and other information, and you will sign a declaration that the gun is unloaded.
This means you have to be sure the weapon is unloaded before placing it in the case. Your luggage will be x-rayed and if the TSA can see the bolt locked back, they can be sure that your weapon is not loaded. It is unlikely they will check it further. But in some airports (Atlanta, for instance) you will have to take your luggage to a special TSA screening area to have it examined before being sent to the airlines. This is why it is important, if you’re bringing a firearm, to get to the airport early!
Make sure to leave your holster in the luggage as the TSA gets nervous (and a little uppity) if you leave it on.
Once you get to your destination make sure you get out of the airport area (and especially the parking area) before you put on your weapon.
If for some reason, you find yourself re-routed on the way, and wind up in NY, NJ, IL, CA, OR or WA, then either do not take possession of your luggage (so you don’t have to recheck it) or, if it gets sent out anyway, take it, rent a car, and lock it in the trunk before driving on to the next more reasonable state to book a return flight.
For more information on the TSA’s view of weapons and checking, see here.