Home TripsAcross the Country Traveling With a Firearm in the US

Traveling With a Firearm in the US

by Grant
Traveling with a Gun in the US

Just about every time we go on a road trip, we take a firearm. Specifically, we take a Springfield Armory XD-E 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.

Our new pistol, a Springfield Armory XD-E in 9mm. This is the firearm we now travel with.
Our new pistol, a Springfield Armory XD-E in 9mm.

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.

Updated September 2019

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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.

  1. Most pistols, including mine, are useless against bears.
  2. Bear spray is much more effective against bears than a gun, but be careful where you travel with that, too! More on that below.
  3. 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.
Even with a bridge camera, you can still get good wildlife shots.
This cinnamon black bear was more concerned with eating than us.

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 to 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.

A park volunteer dressed as a colonial sentry stands watch.
Despite its heritage and history in the Revolutionary War, like this sentinel standing guard at Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rochester, New York’s laws respecting weapons are more like Britain’s.

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 nearby. 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 would not consider this to be loaded but many jurisdictions would consider it loaded.
I would not consider this to be loaded but many jurisdictions would consider it loaded.

When I traveled with my Springfield Armory M1911A1, I had a loaded magazine in the pistol but not a round in the chamber. Since we got our new pistol, a Springfield Armory XD-E in 9mm, I feel more comfortable leaving the firearm with a round in the chamber. Here’s why:

The new pistol has both a decocker and a manual safety. That allows me to decock the pistol, forcing a much longer trigger pull on the first shot, AND has a manual safety which completely disengages the trigger. That means grabbing the pistol under stress is a lot safer and a lot less prone to accidentally firing the weapon.

Oh, some states outlaw magazines of specific capacities (generally 10 rounds or more). My pistol has a nine-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.

We have a gun magnet to secure our pistol in our center console.
There are not many places to put a pistol to keep it out of plain sight, especially in a truck, but putting it in your glove compartment or center console will get you arrested in many states if you don’t have a concealed carry permit. We have a gun magnet to secure our pistol in our center console.
So, why do I keep my pistol in my center console?

I choose to keep my pistol in my center console so that I can access it easily AND it is not where I keep any of the documents for my truck. That means if I am pulled over, I never need to reach into my center console for anything related to the traffic stop. The last thing I want to do is inadvertently cause a law enforcement officer stress.

Also, I can lock my center console if I feel I need to do that. In my last truck, I could not do that but my new F-150 has that capability.

Our pistol secured in the center console with a Rymmes Gun Magnet.
Our pistol secured in the center console with a Rymmes Gun Magnet.

We use a Rymmes Gun Magnet to keep the pistol secured and out of the way for getting all of the other stuff out of the center console but easily accessible when I need it.

The basic rule of thumb: Store it in your locked trunk if you are traveling and have any doubts.

What about vehicles, like trucks and RVs, which don’t have a locked trunk space? That’s where things get more complicated and that’s 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. Indeed, when we bought our new pistol, Bonnie got her concealed carry permit, which took about an hour’s worth of time for the application and about two weeks. When I renewed my permit, it was even easier.

Bonnie qualifying on our new pistol. She shot really well!
Bonnie qualifying on our new pistol. She shot really well!

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 map of all the states which honor my concealed carry permit, courtesy of USACarry.com.
A map of all the states which honor my concealed carry permit, courtesy of USACarry.com.

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.

New England

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.

Some of the experimental weapons developed at Springfield Armory National Historic Site.
Massachusetts outlawed most of the weapons made at places like the Springfield Armory. I find that fact ironic.

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.

Out West

In summer of 2017, 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.

Bear Spray

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!

Final Thoughts

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.

Pulling our camper over Powder River Pass in Wyoming
Pulling our camper over Powder River Pass in Wyoming.

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. The laws, however, change and often. I use USACarry.com to track concealed carry permit reciprocity. 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.

Vastness of West Texas
We often travel to remote places where there is no calling 911 if something were to go wrong. For that reason, I find having a firearm with me to be a prudent decision.

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. That case limits a traffic stop to how long it takes to accomplish the objective of the stop (writing a ticket, etc.).

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.

The ins and outs of traveling with a firearm in the US, including how to find the best way to legally travel with a firearm on a road trip.
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9 comments

Avatar
Dan Boles September 12, 2017 - 1:08 pm

Great write-up brother. Couldn’t agree more on the need for national reciprocity. Time for the subcommittee holdups to end. And I never would’ve considered bear-spray to be a potential violation.

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Kathleen Jimenez June 4, 2018 - 5:31 pm

Thank you for this article. My husband and I are preparing to go full time and have never been gun owners. We are debating if we should buy one and you’ve answered a lot of questions for us

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Grant Sinclair
Grant Sinclair June 4, 2018 - 8:03 pm

Thanks so much! Please let us know if there is anything else we can help you with on this. I know it is a tough decision.

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Robert August 5, 2018 - 2:09 pm

Thanks for the informative article. I am Illinois resident with only a valid Illinois FOID card which of course is worthless in all other states and only allows for the purchase and travel of an unloaded and out of reach firearm in my state. My wife and I are travelling to both Wyoming and Colorado for vacation this year and while traveling through IL, IA and NE, I will keep the gun in the trunk and in the original plastic case unloaded and padlocked. If I interpret the somewhat confusing non-resident gun laws of Wyoming, again by not having a CCW permit, as soon as I enter the state, I must display it in plain view which I’m guessing the dash board would be the best place. What makes me cringe is while staying in the hotel, it still must be on the dash all night in plain view? Without question, this makes me cringe. On the plus side, I am a bit clearer on Colorado’s non-resident, no permit rules which allows for concealed in car so as soon as we cross into the state, I can toss it in the glove box loaded.

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Grant Sinclair
Grant Sinclair August 5, 2018 - 8:26 pm

Thanks so much! I would definitely call or e-mail someone in the Wyoming State Troopers and ask for clarification on the law there. I would not display the weapon out in the open unless absolutely necessary. It is just inviting thievery. Unless you are transporting a long gun, why not put the gun in your luggage when going into the hotel? But as always, calling and checking is best method to resolve a question like this.

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Anonymous jack August 23, 2018 - 9:30 pm

I you’re never attacked in such a way that you lose control of one of your limbs. Really tough to rack the slide and load a round into the chamber one handed.

All that said thanks for the info. I’m a Mainer trapped in my state by insane gun laws in surrounding states.

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Grant
Grant August 24, 2018 - 10:10 am

I agree, but my wife and I travel together and she knows how to handle the pistol as well. If I were wearing my pistol on my hip, I would certainly carry it with a round in the chamber. Leaving it in the truck in a holster? Again, if that is the deciding the factor, I have already lost.

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Dan August 18, 2019 - 12:31 pm

Great post! You confirmed what my research was telling me. Either avoid the Northeast next summer or store our firearms until we leave for more friendly states. Kind of sucks but when Boston and NYC, among other places, are on the bucket list, what are you going to do? Was hoping Pennsylvania was more friendly but it doesn’t look like it.

BTW, if you pick up an Arizona non-resident CCW permit, you’ll gain about four more states (NV, NM, NE and DE). It can be done by mail as there’s no training requirement, just proof of prior training. I think another state’s permit should do.

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Grant
Grant August 20, 2019 - 8:06 pm

Pennsylvania honors our permit, so I don’t worry about traveling there. Honestly, the biggest issue is NY state. When it comes to visiting NYC and Boston, we are planning on flying there and using mass transit. I really don’t like driving in large cities in my truck, much less taking the camper anywhere close.

Thanks for the advice on the Arizona permit. I will look into getting that!

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