Your hero has to travel across the country, and because he is a protective alpha kind of guy, he doesn’t intend to get in a car or on a plane unless he’s armed and ready for any eventuality. How do you write this scene without allowing your hero to be taken down by TSA agents? ADAM FIRESTONE has the answers! Read on to find out what’s legal in this situation. You’ll also find out why the image at the top of this post is a toaster. (Really. It IS a toaster.)
Arming a character with a firearm offers any number of storyline and plotline supports, especially for the romance thriller genre. How the character comes to acquire or possess the firearm is another matter entirely, and it is here that authors frequently run into trouble. One of the easiest – and most plausible – solutions is to arm the character with a previously owned firearm. This easy path rapidly becomes much more complex when the character has to travel across state lines with a firearm. We’ll take a closer look at both vehicular and air travel within the United States from both regulatory and practical perspectives.
Bottom line up front: Traveling with a firearm is a right guaranteed under US federal law. The technical terms for novels that have characters disarmed because of the need to travel are: “Wrong,” “incorrect,” “uninformed” and “poorly researched.” (But, as usual, this column does not indicate strong feelings on the matter…)
Traveling by Car
Under the federal Firearms Owners Protection Act (FOPA) of 1986 (18 USC 921), interstate transportation of a firearm is strictly permitted within specific guidelines:
a. The transporter is legally entitled to possess a firearm. If there is a legal prohibition (e.g., the person is a minor, a convicted felon or lacks a permit in a jurisdiction where a permit is required to possess a firearm) that would prevent a person from owning or possessing a firearm, that person cannot transport a firearm across state lines.
b. The point of origin is a place where the transporter may legally possess the firearm. A Virginia resident taking a military style Kalashnikov (AK) pattern rifle from her home outside Richmond (where possession of such a rifle is legal) to a competition in Vermont, and traveling through Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts (all of which prohibit AK pattern rifles) would be eligible for FOPA protection. A New Jersey resident going to the same competition with the same pattern of rifle would not.
c. The point of destination is a place where the transporter may legally possess the firearm. A Utah resident travels under FOPA protection when she takes her military style rifle to Arizona or Nevada. FOPA does not apply when she takes the same rifle to California, which prohibits ownership of such firearms.
d. The firearm must be unloaded. There is some dispute as to the meaning of unloaded; specifically as to whether a magazine containing cartridges but not inserted into the firearm meets the “unloaded” criteria. The generally accepted criterion is that the ammunition is in a separate container (usually a dedicated aftermarket ammunition container or the original factory packaging) and not held inside any firearm component.
e. The firearm is locked out of reach. With respect to a sedan, this generally meant that the firearm was kept in the car’s trunk. However, the waters are muddied somewhat when sport utility vehicles (SUV) or sedans with reach-through rear seats are contemplated, as in those cases the firearm is not truly “locked” out of reach. The accepted practice is to place the firearm in some sort of locking container or case and to place the locked case in a portion of the vehicle inaccessible to the driver or front seat passenger while the vehicle is in motion.
FOPA also requires that the journey be generally continuous, without an overnight stay. Thus, stopping for a meal and a bio break is permitted, but getting a hotel for the evening short of the destination (unless the hotel is in a jurisdiction where the firearm may be legally possessed) is not.
There are two more issues of critical importance, both in the real world and for your characters transporting firearms. First, as soon as any firearm is carried on or about the person, loaded, or placed in a place where it is readily accessible in the vehicle, FOPA no longer applies and the transporter is subject to all state and local firearms laws. That could very well mean, in a restrictive state such as New Jersey or New York, the risk of imprisonment. Next, a number of states treat FOPA as an affirmative defense. This means that the transporter would still be arrested, charged and tried, but that conviction could be avoided by invoking FOPA. While avoiding conviction is good, the reality may include prison time and tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in court and attorney fees.
Traveling by Air
Domestic US airlines cannot prevent the lawful possessor of a firearm from traveling with the firearm (in her CHECKED luggage) by air. Period. There is, however, a process involved:
a. The firearm must be transported in CHECKED luggage, not in any carry-on luggage.
b. The firearm must be unloaded.
c. Ammunition must be secured. Any ammunition must be packaged in either the original factory packaging, a dedicated ammunition storage container, or another equivalent storage mechanism that will prevent individual cartridges from becoming loose and rolling around the luggage. I’ve found that magazines are an acceptable storage container for some airlines.
d. The firearm must be in a locked hard sided case (the case can be INSIDE a soft sided case if need be). Moreover by federal regulation, only the passenger may possess a key to, or access the contents of, the hard sided case in which the firearm resides. This makes for some interesting interactions with representatives of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), specifically in this scenario:
The traveler’s luggage is a medium sized, hard sided suitcase. A pistol is inside the suitcase. The TSA representative will put the suitcase, which has been declared to contain an unloaded firearm, through the X-ray machine. Then, more often than not, she will ask the passenger for the key. The passenger may NOT surrender the key, and must be present while the luggage is inspected. It’s not unusual for the TSA representative to be unaware of this provision and for a spirited discussion to ensue. The really useful plotline buttress is that once the luggage is approved, it cannot be legally opened again by the airline, the TSA or anyone other than the passenger. Want to transport electronics, lock picks, banana bread or anything else securely? Put a gun in the luggage!
e. The firearm must be declared. The traveler must go to the airline’s check-in counter, and when having her bags tagged for transport in CHECKED luggage, declare the presence of an unloaded firearm. The ticket agent will ask to see the unloaded firearm, hard case and locks. The ticket agent may ask (but usually will not) the traveler to verify that there is no ammunition in the firearm, requiring the traveler to manipulate and clear the firearm at the counter. Then the agent will supply a tag indicating that the firearm has been declared, which will be signed and dated by the traveler, and placed with the firearm in the hard case. The case will then be locked and the traveler escorted to the TSA luggage checkpoint.
f. At the point of destination, the traveler picks up her luggage from the baggage carousel, and off she goes.
And that’s it. It really is that easy. Now, that doesn’t mean that somewhat amusing situations can’t and don’t occur. As evidence, I recount the following personal experience (I promise – this is all true!):
A number of years ago, I was traveling to Missouri to attend a professional conference. Some friends had asked me to go shooting and attend a barbeque with them, so I’d packed one of my favorite rifles, a Belgian FAL. The FAL is a military style rifle popular with Western armies during most of the Cold War. It looked military, with black plastic furniture, a pistol grip and a detachable 20 round magazine. The rifle was in an olive drab mil-spec polymer transport case secured with four high security padlocks. The case had a foam interior that was custom cut to store both the rifle and five magazines securely. Each magazine contained 20 rounds of ammunition. Prior to traveling, I’d called the airline and verified that I could take up to 11 pounds of ammunition, so long as it was secured and not loose.
I arrived earlier than usual at the check-in counter at Reagan National Airport, around 5:30 AM. I handed over my passport and said:
“I’d like to declare an unloaded firearm.”
The agent had me place the rifle case on the scale, unlock it and open it up. His eyes got wide when he looked at the evil black rifle in the case.
“Ohmygosh! What is that?”
I didn’t miss a beat. In my best deadpan monotone I said: “It’s a toaster.”
He looked back up at me. “Is it loaded?”
“No sir. Would you like me to open the chamber so you can inspect it?”
“No, that won’t be necessary.”
I filled out my form, placed it in the case, and locked it. The agent tagged my bags, and off I went to the checkpoint. My rifle case was put through the X-ray machine. The screener looked at me with consternation. Apparently, I have the only X-ray opaque plastic rifle case in the US. He asked me to place the case on a stainless steel screening table and open it. Click-click-click-click went the locks, and I opened the case.
His eyes got wide. “What is that?” he said.
“It’s a toaster.”
“You cannot have that! It is illegal! It is a machinegun!”
I sighed. “No sir. It’s not a machine gun. It is legal. Would you like me to show you that the chamber is empty?”
“Is illegal! You wait here!” (The screener’s first language wasn’t English, which became more apparent as he became more excited.)
I sighed again and settled in to wait as the screener disappeared, leaving me with a battle rifle, 100 rounds of ammunition, and a growing line behind me.
Meanwhile, a supervisor came over.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
I explained the situation to him, and he nodded thoughtfully and asked to see the rifle. I opened the case.
“Oh my goodness! What is that?”
This was getting repetitive. “It’s a toaster,” I said.
“Is it loaded?”
“No sir. Would you like me to open the chamber to verify that for you?”
“No, you’re good. Oh. Wait. Do you have any ammunition in there?”
“Yes sir. In those five magazines.”
“Oh. I don’t think you can have any ammunition.”
“Yes sir, I can. Up to 11 pounds. As long as it’s not loose. Those are the regulations. I’d be happy to wait while you verified that if you want.”
“Would you? Thanks. I’ll be right back.”
Supervisor disappears, again, leaving me with a rifle, loaded magazines and an ever less patient queue of travelers. While I’m waiting, a second supervisor comes over, this one a very businesslike woman. Frowning at the line of passengers, she asked what was going on. I explained.
“May I see the rifle?” she asked.
“Sure.” I opened the case.
“Oh my! What is that?”
I held back a sigh (she was VERY businesslike!). “It’s a toaster.”
“Is it loaded?”
“No ma’am. Would you like me to open the chamber and show you?”
I pulled the rifle from the case, very carefully keeping the muzzle elevated and racked the bolt carrier group to the rear. It slid back with an unmistakable KA-CHUNK sound. Now, remember, it’s about six in the morning, there aren’t a lot of people in the airport, and that National is one big echo chamber. Two soccer mom-ish women in line
behind me hear the sound, see the rifle and begin screaming.
“OH MY GOD!!! It’s a terrorist!!!”
I’m thinking that my day just couldn’t possibly get ANY better. However, supervisor number two saves the day. She turns and transfixes the soccer moms with The Look. Their screams die off in their throats and they scamper off. I’m impressed, and make a note to ask the lady supervisor to accompany me through bad neighborhoods.
Before I can get the words out, supervisor number one returns.
“Hey, I want to thank you for your patience, and for researching before you got here. You were completely right about the ammunition.”
“Great!” I say, and prepare to lock up the case so I can get to the gate.
At just that moment, the original screener comes back, with two men in suits. Suits with bulges underneath the jacket at the right hip.
I sigh again.
“Show it to them!” he demands.
“Umm, who are they?” I ask.
“They are security! Show it to them!”
“Yes, but who ARE they?”
The more senior of the two gentlemen in suits realizes what I’m asking, and produces his official identification, which I scrutinize and politely hand back. I smile (instead of sighing) and open the case.
In unison, the two government security men exclaim “Oh my gosh! What is that?”
And, before I can open my mouth, the two screening supervisors, in tones dripping with sarcasm, respond:
“It’s a toaster.”
I got on my plane ten minutes later.
Were you surprised by the information in Adam’s post today? Have your characters been in similar situations?
On Wednesday, KATE MEADER shares her experiences as a newly published author
Bio: Adam Firestone brings more than 25 years of experience with weapon systems including small arms, artillery, armor, area denial systems and precision guided munitions to Romance University. Additionally, Adam is an accomplished small arms instructor, editor, literary consultant and co-author of a recently published work on the production of rifles in the United States for Allied forces during the First World War.
Adam has been providing general and technical editing services to authors and publishing houses specializing in firearms books since the early 2000s. Additionally, Adam provides literary consulting services to fiction authors including action scene choreography, technical vetting and technical editing. In this line of experience, Adam has had the fortune to work with well known authors including Shannon McKenna and Elizabeth Jennings.
Check out Adam’s blog here: http://adamfirestoneconsultant.blogspot.com/
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