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Protecting Your Sensitive Valuables In Checked Baggage : A Last Resort

Web: www.stevenfrischling.com — E-Mail: fish@flyingwithfish.com

8/10/2008 – Protecting Your Sensitive Valuables In Checked Baggage : A Last Resort


With the recent news of a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screener being caught and confessing to the theft of hundreds of expensive cameras, lenses, laptops, video equipment and other items at Newark Liberty International Airport (as I reported here on Flying With Fish : 7/10/2008 – Airport TSA Security Screener Busted For One-Man Theft Ring) I have received dozens of e-mails today asking how photographers can securely checked their equipment.

The subject of checking photographic equipment securely is one I have discussed in various online forums for quite some time. The bad news is that if someone wants to steal from you they will. The complex issue is that the most secure checked baggage scenario I am aware of is only available for travel domestically within the United States. The troubling issue is that in order to verify that your gear is securely checked you must travel with a firearm.

I have weighed the positives and negatives on discussing the last resort options to ensure a checked bag is locked upon check in and remains locked upon arrival. Ultimately I have decided that it is the best interest of photographers, and others traveling with sensitive valuables that must be checked, to know the one ‘trick up the sleeve’ that will ensure a bag can be visually checked, locked, never opened again by the TSA or anyone else while in transit, and be delivered via ‘special handling’ at your destination.

There is a little known rule in place by the TSA that allows a passenger to check an unloaded firearm in a securely locked hard-sided case. This rule applies to something as simple as a ‘starter pistol’ that requires no permit. If you slip a simple $30 starter pistol into your Pelican Case with your checked camera equipment, your camera case is now a ‘gun case.’

How does this work? Let me explain

1) When you check in for your flight you declare that your checked case contains a firearm to the airline counter representative.

2) Once you have declared the weapon to the airline counter agent you must prove to them that the firearm has an empty chamber and is not loaded with any ammo.

3) Once you have satisfied the airline requirements you must present your hard-sided case, containing the firearm, to a TSA Agent.

4) The TSA screener will then visually inspect the contents of your case in front of you. By law you MUST be present as your case is inspected by the TSA Agent.

5) Following the inspection you must lock your case with a non-TSA Sentry Lock. This means that the lock you use will in no way be accessible to any TSA agents, or ramp agents, who have access to TSA Sentry Lock keys. Both key and combination locks are acceptable, however a combination lock is suggested, as is using two locks instead of one

6) Once the TSA accepts your hard-sided case, locked with two non-TSA Sentry Locks, it is identified in such a way that it will not be opened again until it delivered to your destination and is back in your hands, and you choose to unlock it.

You CANNOT check the case containing the firearm at curbside check-in. You should check with the airline you will be flying on to check what rules and regulations that may have for checking a firearm on their flights.

Personally, I strongly suggest making every effort to carry your gear on-board. Look into a combination of a backpack that can hold a significant amount of equipment. Choose a backpack that by design does not draw the attention of an airline representative and use it in conjunction with a full size roll-aboard to carry additional equipment and longer lenses.

If you cannot deal with a backpack and roll aboard for your gear, then look into the last resort and pack a starter pistol between your 400f2.8 and 600f4 inside your Pelican Case.

For the Official TSA information on traveling with a firearm check here:

Happy Flying!


  1. Hey Fish,

    Maybe things have changed but, I used to shoot sporting clays competitively and I can tell you for certain that the last time I shot the US Open championships in Maryland about 5 years ago, this was not the case.

    I checked two shotguns in a locked travel case, declared them as such and provided the TSA with the paperwork for the guns. Within about 10 minutes of checking in for the flight and dropping off my luggage for my Canada bound flight, I was paged to come to the TSA office. When I got there, they wanted my combination for the case which I said I would give them if they allowed me to witness the inspection. I was told my options were basically nil. Refuse to give the combination and they would give me back the case and I could take a bus or walk, give them the combination and hope that the $10,0000 custom shotguns were still in the case when I got home.

    On this occasion, my stuff was safe when I got home but, given the hassles with the ATF to get permits renewed annually and problems I had at airports traveling with guns, I gave up competing at tournaments in the US, just more trouble than it was worth which, is ironic, considering Canada is supposed to be the anti gun capital of the western world.

    Funny too, I was in France not that long ago on assignment and while waiting for a train, saw three guys walking down the hall with Beretta gun cases and bags, obviously on their way to some sort of tournament. This in a very security conscious country.

    Anyway, maybe things have changed but, my experience has been that they won’t let you witness the inspection and won’t let you check guns without handing over the keys or combination. Typical government, we don’t trust you but, you have no choice but to trust us.

  2. Also in my experience most airlines do not want you to check-in from home when you are checking a firearm. This is due to the terminal personal working the automated checkin with limited airline personal who are overseeing everything else. I’ve done it a few times where my wife checked us in via the web and didn’t tell me.

    Never had a problem checking a firearm.

  3. Dan,

    There are some differences in flying with a firearm when traveling internationally rather than domestically from US airports. I know many frequent travelers have come to see the US-CAN boarder crossing as streamlined and routine, however as you are well aware Canada is still an international flight for departures from the United States (oddly flights from Canada to the US are technically “domestic flights” once you’re at the gate).

    There are times when the TSA will reopen a gun case in transit. In these instances the flyer will be paged, or located at the gate, and be required to open the case. The TSA does ask for the key or combination to open the case, they must however open it with you present. You must visually witness the entire inspection, then lock the case.

    When a US Citizen or US Resident travels domestically, inside the United States, no ATF permit is required. ATF forms are only for those traveling into the United States with a firearm from an international destination.

    Happy Flying!


  4. “Anonymous”

    There should not be a distinction between checking-in at home (at the hotel) when traveling with a firearm as long as you declare the weapon with the airline counter representative. With airlines reducing staffing levels at airports I can see how this can be irritating to the airport staff, since they are attempting to use a streamlined check-in process for those who have chosen to check-in at home.

    There are cases of airline employees making up rules on the spot. Should you be challenged when checking in a firearm you should immediately ask for the supervisor or station manager.

    Happy Flying!


  5. Interesting. I’ll have to keep that in mind.

    In Dec 2006 I traveled from NY state (Laguardia) to Miami, Florida with two rifles in one case. A super deadly .30-06 (with a scope which makes it extra super deadlier) and a bullet flinging semi-automatic assault weapon that, get this, held ultra high capacity 15 (OH MY!) round magazines, ie a war gun, an M1 Carbine.

    I informed the counter agent of my secret terrorist plot to murder everyone in the airport (and by using the scoped rifle it would make them not just dead but double dead).

    She then asked me to take the case over the TSA area. I placed it in their hands and they contacted the nearest NYPD officer.

    He came over (I gave him the key for the case) and, while standing outside the seatbelted TSA area, with my guns and officer in full view, he checked the serial numbers with dispatch and made sure the rifles were unloaded.

    Simple deal, at which point he locked up the case, gave me back the keys and TSA took the case, by itself, on a cart to put it on the plane.

    That was it. In Miami it came out on the conveyor as just another piece of luggage lol.

    (how was my mocking tone of the liberal mentality?)

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