Traveling With a Firearm in the US
Just about every time we go on a road trip, I take a firearm. Specifically, I take a Springfield Armory M1911A1 pistol with me. But, traveling with a firearm presents some serious legal challenges, some of which can’t be overcome.
Before we get started, I am not a lawyer. I am not dispensing legal advice. I am commenting on how I travel. But, Mike, one of our readers asked about this topic, so I am giving you the best information I have.
Traveling with a firearm is very much a personal choice. I am very comfortable with firearms, but I know a lot of people aren’t. This is in no way a suggestion that everyone should travel with a firearm.
Why I Travel With A Firearm
The first question I get when I tell people I travel with a gun, knowing we camp a lot, is do I bring it for bears? The answer is emphatically no.
- Most pistols, including mine, are useless against bears.
- Bear spray is much more effective against bears than a gun, but be careful where you travel with that, too! More on that below.
- I have no desire to hurt a bear and, most of the time, bears have no desire to hurt a person. We have hiked in Yellowstone National Park and run into bears on the trail. The bears knew we were there and they didn’t care. By the way, I locked my pistol in my truck before going on the hike. My bear spray was on my hip.
I travel with a gun for protection against people.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not paranoid about people. Indeed, I find 90% of the people I meet are perfectly awesome folks and are friendly and helpful. I find 8% of the people I meet are either having a bad day or are just cantankerous in general, but don’t mean me harm in any way shape or form. The final 2%? Those are the folks I worry about.
Simply, Bonnie and I travel to a lot of “out of the way” places on back roads often. We have been places where we were the only vehicle on the road for 50 miles and no cell service for hours. I don’t want to be in a bad position in a place like that.
I don’t think I will ever need to use it. Indeed, I hope and pray I never have to use it, but I am a firm believer in it is better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.
The Perils of Traveling with a Firearm in the United States
The Firearms Owner’s Protection Act (FOPA) protects anyone transporting a weapon from local laws and prohibitions. The owner must store the weapon in a locked container separate from the ammunition, not accessible to the passengers of the vehicle.
So, legally, you can transport a firearm through any state, right?
Sorta. Maybe. It depends.
Several states make it illegal to possess a handgun or various other kinds of firearms within state lines. In particular, New York’s firearms laws are incredibly stringent. Basically, you can transport a weapon through the state, but if you stop for the night, you violate the law.
New York authorities arrested several people for having a firearm with them on an overnight layover.
Many states in the US regard FOPA as an “affirmative defense” in the event the police arrest you. But, the police will still arrest you and you have to prove you meet the requirements of FOPA.
In some states, local municipalities have incredibly strict laws regarding weapons.
Oh, and Canada and Mexico? My advice is don’t even think about crossing one of those borders without a great amount of research.
Is It Loaded Or Not?
What is a “loaded” weapon? Many states outlaw “loaded” weapons within arm’s reach, but what does that mean?
In some states, loaded means having a round (a bullet to most folks) in the chamber or a loaded magazine in the weapon. For those not in the know, a magazine (often erroneously called a clip) is a replaceable housing which feeds rounds into a gun.
Some states consider a gun loaded if there are rounds near by. So, if you have your pistol in the glove compartment and the magazine in there as well, law enforcement considers the weapon loaded. In some states, if the ammunition is not stored in a separate locked container, law enforcement considers the weapon loaded.
I typically travel with a loaded magazine in my pistol, but not a round in the chamber. While I travel with a very safe weapon, it is just a simple extra safety measure I find prudent. After all, if the time it would take me to cycle a round into the chamber is too long, I have probably already lost the gunfight.
Oh, some states outlaw magazines of specific capacities (generally 10 rounds or more). My pistol has a seven- or eight-round magazine, which does not violate any state laws.
Is It Concealed Or Not?
First, why do you want it concealed?
The reason I keep my pistol concealed in my vehicle is simple: avoid theft. Leaving a valuable weapon on the seat in plain sight is just asking for someone to break in and steal it.
What is considered concealed?
Each state, and sometimes municipalities within a state, define concealing a weapon differently. In almost every case, having a gun on your person in such a manner as it cannot readily be seen is considered concealed.
But what does that mean in a vehicle?
In some states, the law considers having a gun anywhere out of sight where a person could easily reach it or having it in a non-locked container in the passenger compartment as having it concealed.
The basic rule of thumb: Store it in your locked trunk if you are traveling.
What about vehicles, like trucks and RVs, which don’t have a locked trunk space? That’s where things get more complicated and is why I got a concealed carry permit to begin with.
A Concealed Carry Permit
I know this is a bit frustrating. Like everything else in this article, it depends on where you live as to how and if you can get a concealed carry permit.
In Georgia, it is a fairly easy process. The county fingerprinted me and I went through a background check, plus I paid a few fees. When I renewed my permit, it was even easier.
I did not get my concealed carry permit to carry my pistol on my person. I got my concealed carry permit because I could not find a legal way without one to transport my weapon with me in the only lockable space in my old Jeep Wrangler: the glove compartment.
Fortunately, it also meant I gained reciprocity with several other states in terms of having my gun with me while on the road.
A Tale of Two Road Trips
Let’s talk about the practicalities involved when traveling with a loaded weapon through a couple of case studies from our recent summer road trips.
Our first summer road trip with the camper was to New England. We visited sites or stayed the night in Tennessee, West Virginia, Maryland, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Of those states, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut do not honor my concealed carry permit. Ok… time to do a little research.
While Connecticut and Rhode Island would not be difficult to travel through with a firearm, provided I stored it in a locked container with ammunition stored separately, Massachusetts would be a problem unless I was just passing through. Since we planned on staying in the state for several days, that made things harder to comply with their laws.
New York, on the other hand, was pretty much impossible to legally have the pistol with me and do anything other than drive through the state. Even then, New York State Police will completely ignore FOPA and arrest people anyway.
So, we left the gun at home. It was not worth the risk to even transport a gun through New York.
This past summer, we took the camper through the following states: Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado.
Of those states, only New Mexico, California and Nevada do not honor my permit. Again, time to do a little research.
While New Mexico and Nevada do not honor my permit, neither restricts carrying a loaded weapon concealed in your vehicle. Since I don’t carry my pistol on my person, I was good to go.
California has strict gun laws, so I made a point to research them very carefully. California would allow me to transport the pistol as long as I stored it in a locked container separate from the ammunition.
So, while traveling through Arizona, I stopped before passing into California and locked the gun up in the camper. Once I left California, I returned the gun to the truck. Problem solved.
Oddly enough, after doing all the research on where I can legally transport my pistol, I did not give a second thought to transporting bear spray.
Apparently, Arkansas, of all places, deemed the 8.1 ounce canister of bear spray we bought in Yellowstone National Park too large to be legal. So, for all of my preparation and forethought into traveling with a gun, I inadvertently violated Arkansas law by transporting bear spray through the state. Oops!
Until Congress gets its act together and passes both a national standard for concealed carry permits and national reciprocity for concealed carry, traveling with a gun is legally hazardous.
Truly, what bothers me the most is I drive peacefully from one state to the next on a long road trip and go from legally minding my own business to committing a felony just by crossing a state line.
That needs to change. There is a bill in Congress which would allow 50-state reciprocity, but it has been in subcommittee since January 2017.
I would love to give you some resources on traveling with a weapon across state lines, but the laws change and often. I use USACarry.com to track concealed carry permit reciprocity, but in terms of the actual gun laws, the only sites I pay attention to are the state police of a particular state or the actual laws themselves, which can often be found online.
When in doubt, I recommend calling the public information line for the state police where you are looking to travel through.
The other thing I recommend is understanding how the Fourth Amendment works in terms of search and seizure while you are driving. Be sure to understand, 2015’s Supreme Court decision on Rodriguez v. US, which limits a traffic stop to how long it takes to accomplish the objective of the stop (writing a ticket, etc.).
While it is important to be polite and respectful to all law enforcement officers, it is also important to not willingly give away your rights in the process.