Traveling with Firearms & Ammo: Lessons Learned
By Ed H. Edwards, Lansing SCI Chapter Member
Most hunters have at least one interesting (if not ugly) story about traveling with firearms.
Sometimes things do not go as you expect. Always plan for a “what if” and do not repeat my mistakes!
Traveling with Firearms 40 Years Ago
Over 40 years ago I got invited by a business associate in Texas to stay for a weekend and go waterfowl hunting. Since it would involve a “white rag” field hunt for snow geese and pintails I jumped at the opportunity. A coworker let me use his plastic hard case so I was all set to go.
It took three flights to get to Beaumont, Texas and my suitcase came into the luggage claim area but no gun case. I filled out a lost luggage claim but it failed to arrive during my stay. About 6 months later I got a call advising that my gun had been located. Long story short: the handle got ripped off along with the transfer and identification tag.
Since then I purchased several much more robust aluminum cases. They have a handle identification PLUS a business cart is securely taped both on the outside and inside of each case. Both cases have had the OEM locks damaged and have been replaced/upgraded with latches that are locked with keyed steel locks.
Checking firearms is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get!
Since the inception of TSA, I find checking firearms more consistent, if not easier. The departure airport often dictates how much additional time you may need to check in. Departing from either Kalamazoo or Lansing airports has always been smooth. You sign the unloaded firearm declaration slip, place it into the case, close the locks, and you are free to go.
Detroit Metro has been much different and the following has occurred:
The airline agent had me sign the declaration and open the case. She looked inside but since I pack the rifle in a padded soft case then into the hard case it is not visible and I was not asked to make it visible. I was then instructed to close the case and was escorted to a different gate to meet with a TSA agent. After waiting he came out and the case was again opened and he stared at the inside of the case and felt the inside padding but never asked to open the soft case. He then instructed us to wait for another TSA employee. Agent #2 came out and did the same thing and never looked at the rifle to confirm it was unloaded.
This happened two times about one year apart! Both times I was checking in 3+ hours before flight time and the inspection process approached one hour each time. Michigan has a large population of traveling hunters (SCI Members!) so checking firearms is not unusual by any means.
Other large USA airports have gone much faster, especially ones that frequently handle firearms such as Houston, San Antonio, and Kansas City. However, it is best to allow extra time!
Checking Ammo when Flying
Checking ammo can cause heartburn if the rules are not followed to a T as I found out the hard way.
The TSA “rule” is the ammo must be in the original box or an aftermarket box that separates the ammo from the gun.
I use the original boxes and pack those in a sturdy lockable box and have it on the top of everything else in my duffel bag for easy access. Here are some of my previous experiences:
Once when departing from NY JFK the luggage check-in was past security. This was no doubt going to be interesting and when it was my turn I explained the long silver box contained a firearm and was relieved no one started screaming. I was told to step aside and a police officer would be coming (fortunately not to arrest me but to assist with getting my rifle checked). The rifle inspection process was cordial and without incident. He then requested to see the ammo and the single box was packed in the center of my stuffed duffel and required nearly dumping everything out to access the ammo. Once found I tried to hand it to him but he said “OK, that is fine” and walked away.
My practice of using a heavy zip-lock to protect my ammo once got me into a little trouble. On the return trip after clearing security I was paged to return to the check-in counter where the agent was holding the zip-lock bag with a few twelve gauge loads that TSA had found when searching my checked duffel. Common sense told me they were much safer in the zip-lock which was inside my field bag than in the paper box which could come apart and scatter the ammo.
However, my common sense did not prevail and I was balled out, my ammo confiscated, and a few weeks later I received a letter from TSA confirming my error and warned me to follow their rules in the future.
Lesson Learned: The original box rule is reinforced and since then I have not had any problems using the packing method a described.
The Wrap Up
In summary, remember you are representing all hunters and gun owners when traveling. Travel and airports can be stressful but airline and TSA personnel are in charge. Being polite, professional, and calm goes a long way in getting through the process!
Other airline incidents that come with a story:
When I was checking in for a dove hunting trip I was given the slip to sign and the very young ticket agent requested to see the firearm being checked. I opened the breakdown case that contained an over/under shotgun. She stared at the gun, then looked up at me, then went back to staring at the gun. It is a pretty shotgun, but this was getting ridiculous. She again looked at me with a puzzled look and asked where the chamber was? I explained how a double gun works and she thanked me for being patient and remarked firearm inspection training by the airline was not very good.
The Amsterdam airport exercises very tight security and each gate area is a secure room where every passenger is interviewed about their checked luggage before allowed entry. My son was 12 at the time and we were traveling back from Africa. We made our way through the gate security. Before boarding, my son was paged so we went up to the desk to find out what was up. The agent informed us the airport police wanted to speak with Clinton Edwards and I was not allowed to participate in the conversation. However, I was close enough to hear what was going on. The cop asked if anything in our checked luggage resembled a weapon! Clinton replied that we had a rifle and two shotguns. The guy went pale and turned to me and asked if we had “permits.” I quickly explained long guns were not registered but we did have proof of ownership and presented the 4457 forms. This proved satisfactory and we were allowed to continue our journey home and all luggage arrived without incident.
Research the rules and laws when traveling internationally!
One of my early hunting dreams was to hunt Africa specifically the country of Rhodesia for Greater Kudu. I did not make it to Rhodesia in time but did find a way to go to its new name of Zimbabwe in 1982 and did take an old bull on the last day of the hunt.
The trip went smoothly flying to Johannesburg SA. We spent the night and then flew up to Harare the next morning. A firearms permit was issued upon entry to South Africa in a fast and organized manner in customs. Upon arrival in Harare we approached the customs counter and placed a duffel bag and aluminum rifle hard case onto the counter as directed.
The young man working customs asked the following:
Do you have any liquor? Answer: no.
How much cash to you have? Answer: not much.
He stamped our passports and yelled NEXT!
Our host was standing at the exit door holding a sign with our name so we were off without further ado.
We were on our way to the ranch outside the small town of Kwe Kwe and a firearm permit somehow came up in the conversation. Our host did not want to return to the airport and try to sort out a permit and hopefully I could resolve the permit issue when leaving.
The 7-day hunt went well and we stayed in Harare overnight before returning home and again connecting in Johannesburg.
On the way to the hotel our host and his wife showed us some of the Harare sites including the Presidential Palace where Robert Mugabe resided. At that moment I made the biggest mistake of my life and stepped out of the car to take a picture. A guard posted on the balcony did not like what I was up to and set off an alarm! Within seconds the car was surrounded by screaming soldiers wielding AK-47 rifles, the car doors were flung open, and all four of us were looking at muzzles! A heated discussion in mixed English and Shona followed and we were then escorted to a parking lot.
The discussion continued through a minimum of three levels of military rank and we went around and around the same questions and answers:
Question: Why did I take a picture? Answer: I did not, I was going to however did not once the alarm sounded.
Question: Are you a journalist? Answer: No.
Then why did you take a picture? Answer I did not.
I offered to remove the spool of 35 mm film from the Cannon AE1 and they were welcome to do whatever they wanted to do with it since it had only a few pictures of a polo game and other things I would gladly live without. The last officer to talk with us was reasonable and agreed to take the film and recorded our name and home address to see that any non-palace pictures were mailed to us but that never happened.
The entire time this was going on all I could think of was what if they opened the trunk and my rifle sans permit was found. What would the outcome be? After being dismissed we checked into the hotel and never left the premises until it was time to go. I no doubt pushed my luck that trip by not ending up in the slammer!
Later we found out an attempted assignation was made on Mugabe while we were hunting which resulted in the palace security being on very high alert.
I still had the lack of permit to deal with upon departure and here is how it played out. At the airport I was asked for a firearm permit by an official and gave him the permit issued by South Africa. The following conversation occurred:
Official: No-No the permit you were issued when you arrived here in Harare!
Me: None was issued. This is the only permit I have.
Official: One should have been issued when arriving Harare.
Me: Your man did not issue a permit, not my fault.
Probably not knowing what to do and/or getting in trouble himself he gave me a stern look and waived us through.
When the 737 wheels lifted from the tarmac, I was never so relieved in all my life!
Lessons Learned. Know before you go!
In those days information was scarce on African travel and the agent we booked through should have advised firearm permits were required upon entry in both South Africa and Zimbabwe. Find out in advance if permits are needed before arrival or on entry and never assume officials know what they are doing. Be very careful taking pictures in public places and never take any of government employees or buildings.
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