I took my gun on a airplane for the first time, and it was much easier than getting it across town in Washington, D.C. The most difficult part of the process on Sunday was figuring out how to legally transport my firearm from my home in the District to Reagan National Airport in Virginia. The rest was — surprisingly — a breeze.
I was traveling to St. Louis for a self-defense course for female journalists who cover firearm-related issues at the Winchester Co. In planning the trip, the company rep, Michael, recommended I bring my own Sig Sauer P229 so that I could learn on my own pistol. He sent me United Airlines firearms guidelines, which looked pretty simple: the unloaded gun had to be in a locked, in a hard case and checked in the luggage.
Still, I was nervous about flying with it. My gun doesn’t get out much since it’s against the law in D.C. to take my gun anywhere other than another state. Another rep, Shannon, said I should bring it in a locked box to ensure that it didn’t disappear with airport security. She also suggested that I call Ronald Reagan National Airport for any local laws, like the one in New York that requires a police officer escort the bag.
Having dealt with the absurdly restrictive and often irrational gun laws in Washington, I was prepared for anything. I called the airport customer service number and told the lady on the other end of the line my question. She gasped. When she got a hold of herself after hearing the word “gun,” she said that it couldn’t be loaded. I said that I was aware of that. She reiterated the same guidelines given by the airlines. Reagan Airport is conveniently a stone’s throw across the Potomac River in Virginia, which must keep the gun laws in check.
Since the Metro doesn’t come within three miles of my home in Northwest D.C., I had to take a cab to the airport. I put my gun in the lock box with the registration certificate, which I have to produce if I get pulled over and admit to having a gun.
When the driver arrived, it was pouring rain, but I had to ask him to get out of the car and open the trunk. Since there are no carry laws in the District, I couldn’t put my small suitcase in the backseat. The irritable cab driver got very wet putting my little carry-size bag in the trunk and blared the caribbean music loudly the rest of the way.
At the airport, I took my bag and got in line at the United desk. An agent waved me from the line over to to self-checkin kiosks. I waved to say, “no thanks,” but she kept the rope open to force me to go there. I leaned over and said said quietly to her, “I have a firearm.”
“That’s fine. We can help you here,” she said cheerfully.
I put my reservation number into the machine and paid for one check bagged. I heard the agent whispering “gun” to two other agents behind the machine. As the boarding pass was printing, the agent pushed a form turned upside down across the counter and whispered, “If you are taking it on the plane, you need this form.”
I was surprised. I didn’t think I looked much like an air marshal at 5’2” and wearing jeans and flip flops. I suppose other federal agents must fly through this airport so often that carrying on a plane is more common than checking. I said, “No thank you. I’m not carrying it, just checking it.”
She handed me a form to sign. Then gave me a bright orange card that said “FIREARM(S) DECLARATION.” She told me to open the bag. I unzipped the suitcase and showed her the secure box inside. I pushed a button, swiped my finger and the box opened. The other agent was excited.
“How did you do that?” she asked. “Biometrics,” I explained. “That’s my fingerprint.” Both women stared at the stainless steel 9mm pistol in my bag.
I asked where to put the orange form. “Inside the box,” the agent told me. I couldn’t figure out how a form inside a metal box which doesn’t show up on a TSA scan could make any difference in security. If the form was on the outside of the box or on the outside of the suitcase (as used to be the procedure), that at least made sense. So the gun, registration certificate and firearm declaration form were all locked together.
I locked everything back up and was told to walk the bag around to the TSA screeners. The agent came over with me to tell him that I had a gun in my bag. The scanner told me to wait until he had put it through the machine, then said I could go.
As I walked to my gate, it occurred to me that they never checked if the gun was loaded. Anyway, after going through the full body, TSA, x-ray, I still got a pat down. I don’t know if gun owners are marked on the boarding pass for extra security or it was just random. Either way, if something didn’t show up on a 3D scan, I don’t know what touching me would do to make the plane more secure.
After flying through Cleveland, I landed in St. Louis and my bag came off the conveyer belt intact, still locked with my gun inside.
It’s quite remarkable how much easier it is to take a gun lawfully one-third of the way across the country compared to how difficult it is to take it legally across the tiny District of Columbia.
Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at the Washington Times. Her “Emily Gets Her Gun” series on the District’s gun laws won the 2012 Clark Mollenhoff Award for Investigative Reporting from the Institute on Political Journalism.You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.