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Packing heat with your light

January 21, 2010
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The ever fluctuating state of airline security measures has many birders, including yours truly, wondering how we can travel with our precious optics without subjecting ourselves to carry-on restrictions and potential theft from checked bags.  It’s clear that the rules regarding air travel are byzantine and frustrating and some photographers have taken to looking for ways around it.  Fortunately, one such process exists, brough to my attention by my friend Kim.  It’s worth spreading the word, especially if you’re a birder making a trip overseas hauling a lot of optics that have to be checked involuntarily.

The answer is simple. If you don’t want your stuff hassled, pack a gun.

“But wait”, you say, “Doesn’t that involve a significant expense and time-consuming registration?”  Not really, because TSA regulations classify a weapon as a rifle, shotgun, pistol, airgun, or starter pistol.  Yup, those little cap guns that are used to start track meets.   The key is that while they are considered to a weapon by the TSA, they don’t require registration in any US state.  This is probably because the worst thing you’re liable to get from them is a mild case of tinnitus.  Best of all, you can pick one up for under $50.

Now say what you will about the TSA’s priorities here. That a weapon, especially a marginal one, gets red carpet treatment while the rest of us schmoes get our binoculars questioned and our scopes manhandled certainly seems bizarre.  After all, the TSA will take away your nail clippers and test each one of your baby bottles (actually happened to my wife and I) and rummage through your checked baggage but allows a locked weapons case to pass through with minimal scrutiny, but whatever.  This is a loophole, and those of us who often have expensive toys to transport may do well to consider it.

The process is simple, says one photographer:

I have a starter pistol for all my cases. All I have to do upon check-in is tell the airline ticket agent that I have a weapon to declare…I’m given a little card to sign, the card is put in the case, the case is given to a TSA official who takes my key and locks the case, and gives my key back to me.

That’s the procedure. The case is extra-tracked…TSA does not want to lose a weapons case. This reduces the chance of the case being lost to virtually zero.

So consider yourself informed, dear reader.  And be sure to take the opportunity to arbitrate any impromptu 100m races that occur upon arrival at your destination.

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9 Comments
  1. January 21, 2010 12:55 pm

    How wild is that. Fortunately, I don’t have that much and it can all be fit into a carry-on, but something to keep in mind perhaps for if I start collecting more. It was interesting reading some of the comments at the original site you linked to – got quite a reaction from some people!

  2. Nate permalink*
    January 21, 2010 1:09 pm

    @Seabrooke – Yeah, nothing like a mixture of airline security and firearms to get people’s dander up… 😉

  3. January 21, 2010 3:29 pm

    It’s the TSA, so rules don’t have to make any sense.

    The last time I flew, I carried my binoculars and camera in my carry-on luggage. (In fact, I’ve never checked luggage on a flight.) I’m hoping that airline security will be more sane by the time I fly again.

  4. Nate permalink*
    January 21, 2010 3:32 pm

    @John- I’m carrying on my scope when I fly to Massachusetts next week. Last year I didn’t have any problems. I’ll let you know how it goes this time…

  5. January 22, 2010 12:59 am

    To those who fly with scopes, how can you carry on a tripod? I’ve always had to check mine, mostly due to lack of space in my carry on luggage. But I always figured they’d give a hard time about it.

  6. January 22, 2010 9:33 am

    That’s fascinating. I had no idea weapons got such special care. What a clever way to keep your other goodies protected. I don’t fly much now, but when I did I tended to keep all my camera gear in a carry-on bag, but it still got manhandled and tested and all that jazz. This seems much smarter.

  7. Nate permalink*
    January 22, 2010 9:52 am

    @Grant- When I traveled to the SuperBowl of Birding last year, I carried my tripod in my backpack because my bag was too small for it to fit. It stuck out the top and was very obvious what it was. I didn’t have any trouble getting it through security and even had a TSA agent talk to me about photography and show me pictures on his iPhone. I think the key is to be very up front and friendly about what you’re doing and what you’re carrying. I don’t know whether things have changed, but I assume that for the most part I’ll have the same experience in the future. I’ll find out next week.

    @jason- It’s a strange loophole, and I’d have no problem taking advantage of it if I had too. I’m not a gun person, but a starter pistol seems fairly innocuous to me.

  8. January 22, 2010 1:09 pm

    My husband regularly travels with his camera and 500 mm lens as carry-ons, and hasn’t encountered any hassles from TSA (yet!). I suppose it depends on the mood of the agents on duty when you go through.

    Very strange stuff with those “weapons” rules, though!

  9. February 5, 2010 3:53 am

    Love it.

    Reminds me of old advice when bombs were such a big threat. Carry your own bomb on board: the odds of their being two bombs on one plane are infinitesimal.

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