While on the road it’s your right to protect yourself and your family, but America’s patchwork of self-defense laws—and the road itself—isn’t often inviting. Here’s a primer on how you can travel as safely as possible.
Plan Ahead, Know the Law
Detailed planning is the best way to make the unpredictable less so. But we can’t plan for everything, and driving until you get tired and finding a hotel is a common—and often adventurous—reality. But it’s these times—times when we might blunder into a shady edge of town—when it’s most important to remain aware and vigilant. One effective way to remain vigilant is with a defensive firearm.
Trouble is, state and local laws on legal gun carry, transportation and possession vary like the characters in a Waffle House. So the first rule is, familiarize yourself with gun laws in the states and major jurisdictions through which you’ll pass. The best resource for this is NRA-ILA’s Guide to the Interstate Transportation of Firearms. It should be read thoroughly before travel, as it is much more comprehensive than this basic primer.
Generally speaking, traveling with a firearm is best accomplished in conjunction with a concealed-carry permit recognized by the state(s) through which you intend to travel. While you can drive with a gun without such a permit, in most states it is illegal to keep a gun loaded and accessible without one. If your gun isn’t accessible, it’s virtually worthless for self-defense.
If you travel with your self-defense gun in the trunk, locked and unloaded, and never take it in with you on stops, then it’s merely a good-luck charm to make you feel safer, which may actually be giving you a false—and potentially dangerous—sense of security. Nefarious highwaymen rarely stop at your time-out signal so you can fetch your arm at your leisure. If you travel with a gun, you should carry it in high-risk places such as quick stops, roadside restaurants, rest areas and the like, where legal.
To get a tiny idea of how complicated interstate travel laws are, let’s use one simple example of a Virginian who wishes to travel less than 75 miles to Gettysburg, Pa. He has a Virginia concealed-carry permit, so he starts the trip out with his firearm loaded, in the console. Before crossing into Maryland where his permit is not recognized, he must stop, unload the firearm, place it in a hard case, lock it and store it in the trunk or somewhere far enough from the driver’s seat that it’s rendered “inaccessible.” Then, upon crossing into Pennsylvania, where his permit is honored, he can stop and reverse the process. If he decides to drive into Washington, D.C. on the way back, he has decided errantly, as D.C., doesn’t allow ordinary citizens to carry at all. If he gets pulled over there, his fate goes into the hands of judge and jury. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Your kids’ vacation will most likely be ruined if Mom or Dad’s in jail.
Travel Concerns and Tips
While rare, carjacking is a real risk, especially in parking lots or congested areas. What happens in a typical carjack? The perpetrator feigns a question or he simply sticks a gun to the driver’s window and demands the vehicle be surrendered.
If this happens, you must make a split-second judgment that only you can make: Is it better to give up your car—and possibly your family therein—or fight? While this situation is risky in nature, and the carjacker has vast advantage in surprise—one option is to combat with a fully loaded and instantly accessible firearm.
If your family’s situation and the law allows, an accessible and loaded gun can grant you the option to fight with your door-side hand while drawing and shooting with the other. The NRA Steer Clear Vehicle Holster Mount is a great device to keep your gun handy, yet out of the way, and at least partially hidden. Keep your normal carry holster in the console, so when you exit the vehicle, simply transfer the gun to your belt holster, which will keep you armed while preventing your firearm from becoming an invitation for auto thieves.
If you decide to travel with a gun, you should try to minimize loading, unloading, holstering and handling while in the automobile. Regardless of how safe you are and how minute the chances, each individual time you handle the gun there’s a slight risk of accidental discharge. So if you absolutely must do any of these things while in the car, perform them with the windows rolled down. If a gun goes off with the windows rolled up, the tremendous sound waves will almost surely damage your hearing.
Air Travel: Should You Pack a Gun?
Whether you decide to pack a gun and legally declare it in your checked luggage must be weighed from a risk versus reward scenario before each journey. Unfortunately, in some cases the real-world risk of inadvertently breaking a law might outweigh its potential for self-defense. In general, domestic-traveling airlines follow the TSA’s guidelines for traveling with firearms. The TSA’s airline travel rules state: “Travelers may only transport unloaded firearms in a locked, hard-sided container as checked baggage.”
You can also check ammo, as long as it is either in its original packaging, or in a container with individual slots for each bullet. Ammo can be stored separately or in the same locked case as the unloaded firearm. After officially declaring your firearm or firearms, you’ll be asked to sign and date a declaration card, then either put it in with the firearm or on the box (airline agents’ procedures can vary). Then you’ll lock the case and be escorted to a TSA agent who will x-ray your luggage and clear you for travel.
While the vast majority of airline gate agents are helpful and friendly, they are human and occasionally become confused by ever-changing rules like the rest of us. Usually it’s best not to argue with that person. Calmly ask to talk to a manager and explain in a level tone. It is your right to travel with a firearm, but it is the airline’s prerogative to deny service to unruly passengers.
Even during air travel, you must be aware of local laws. A few years ago Utah resident Greg Revell’s flight was delayed overnight while traveling to Pennsylvania via Newark, NJ. He was traveling legally with firearms, and so when the airline gave him his luggage, he left the airport, found a hotel and was promptly arrested the next morning when he checked the guns back at the ticket counter. He spent 10 days in jail.
In broad terms, traveling overseas with firearms is possible for hunting, but much paperwork, including customs forms and declarations is needed, and often long in advance. Consult each country’s laws before traveling. Handguns and guns for self-defense are largely banned in other countries. Even when traveling with a firearm that is legal in your destination, be hyper-aware of your surroundings, and pre-register with the U.S. embassy there.
While the road can be riddled with pitfalls, with some forethought of tactics, knowledge of laws and unwavering awareness you can be prepared for any monkey wrenches it tosses.