by Bob Worthington
© Copyright 2022. All rights reserved!
Published In Midwest Flyer Magazine February/March 2022 Online Issue
Can one carry a gun in a private aircraft? The correct answer is maybe, sometimes, it depends. This confusing response is because of the multiple jurisdictions that control the possession and usage of firearms in the U.S. For the purpose of this article, my focus will be on “handguns…” pistols and revolvers. But first a caveat about my viewpoint on this question.
As a general aviation pilot, I often had a pistol with me in my airplane during flights. Why? Two reasons. First, I live in the southwest and wherever I flew, I would have to cross expansive wild terrain, deserts, mountains, and forests. So, I carried for survival reasons. Secondly, for self-protection when at my destination, primarily where I was staying. Let me explain.
I have owned and used firearms for around 75 years. I have carried as a combat Marine, a police officer, and an Army infantry officer. Additionally, I once was a full-time professional competitive Bullseye pistol shooter (with the competition certification of Master), as well as a National Rifle Association (NRA) pistol, rifle, and shotgun coach. My point being, I am an expert with handguns, as a surgeon is an expert with a scalpel, a dentist with a drill, and a carpenter with a saw and hammer.
If you are not experienced using a handgun, don’t fly with one. Now, assuming you are experienced with a handgun and safety is a primary concern, let me continue with the question: can you carry a pistol in your general aviation aircraft?
Suppose you plan a flight from Minneapolis to Kansas City, Missouri and you have a handgun in your airplane. What laws apply to allow you to depart one airport, fly over three states, and land in another airport? First, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) defines which weapons are legal to possess. Each state you fly over has its own firearms laws. Each airport also has laws regarding the possession of firearms (and some airports come under the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Department of Homeland Security. So, you depart in Minnesota, with a filed destination in Missouri. But what happens if you run into bad weather, run low on fuel, or encounter another situation requiring you to land in Iowa, enroute? More state, local, and airport gun laws to comply with. Now you can understand why flying (legally) with a handgun can be quite complicated.
Also, not everyone may possess a firearm. Federal law prohibits convicted felons from possessing a firearm (see the Gun Control Act of 1968 for more information on who cannot have firearms). State and local laws may also have restrictions as to who may possess firearms (such as age restrictions) and which weapons are legal and illegal. One should contact their state agency that controls firearms possession in their state for details on the laws.
Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) regarding firearms in aircraft are not clear (at least not in my mind). For example, FAR 135.119 (Prohibition against carriage of weapons, referring to commuter and on-demand operations) states no person may carry on or in an aircraft operated by a certificate holder a deadly or dangerous weapon (which I presume includes pistols) with some exceptions, such as local, state, or federal employees authorized to carry firearms. Then the regulation states the certificate holder may authorize others to possess a weapon onboard.
FAR Part 91 implies regulations for general aviation operations. Nowhere in this section of regulations can I locate any rule prohibiting a person in a private aircraft from possessing a weapon in flight. But there are other laws that may impact on this privilege. The type of weapon (a fully automatic rifle) or the purpose of transporting a weapon for sale in your plane (inter-state commerce laws on selling a firearm) are subject to other federal laws.
Assuming your handgun is legal by federal law and the purpose is for use in self-protection, survival, sports, or hunting, what other regulations may regulate what you do? Now we look at where you depart, where you will fly, and where you will land. Each state has its own rules and regulations concerning the possession and usage of firearms.
Suppose you plan to fly from Madison, Wisconsin to Owensboro, Kentucky. Assume you have a concealed carry permit valid in both Wisconsin and Kentucky. You must fly over Illinois, but since you don’t intend to stop there, you know you are legally safe upon departing and landing. But what happens if you encounter engine trouble or harsh weather over Rockford or Bloomington, Illinois? If you must land, are you legal to carry in Illinois?
Who controls the possession of handguns at an airport? That depends on the airport. Small airports (without commercial carriers) may come under the authority of the municipality or county which operates the airport, or perhaps only the state. For example, in my state of New Mexico, municipalities and counties cannot have firearms restrictions exceeding state law. New Mexico law allows residents to carry weapons in their personal vehicles (motorcycles, cars, trucks, and airplanes). So, without any special firearm license or certificate, I can take my pistol from my home to my airplane (parked at the Las Cruces International Airport, KLRU) and fly to Lordsburg Municipal Airport (KLSB) within the state of New Mexico and not violate any firearms laws.
But if I fly from Las Cruces International Airport to Albuquerque International Sunport (KABQ), I must be careful. Airports with commercial air carriers have both sterile areas and non-sterile areas. Sterile areas are that portion of an airport with commercial traffic that provides access to people boarding or exiting commercial aircraft. In most cases enforcement of sterile areas is done by personnel of the Transportation Security Administration. TSA is responsible for the security of our traveling public. Some airports have private contractors for security, but they must be approved by TSA. Firearms are prohibited in sterile areas (except by authorized personnel).
The non-sterile areas, such as FBOs and GA parking areas, though, are governed by municipality and state firearms laws. One word of caution… If a business posts a sign prohibiting weapons inside their building, if you enter the business, armed, and you are asked to leave but don’t, you can be arrested for trespassing. However, I have never seen this sign at an FBO. So, if you land your private aircraft at an airport with commercial air service, avoid sterile areas!
State firearms laws can be extensive and at times confusing. In New Mexico, one can carry a loaded, concealed weapon in their car. While New Mexico is an open carry state (one, over 19, may possess a weapon on their person if it is visible), there are places where a firearm is prohibited such as state parks, public schools, or liquor bars. Yet a person may have a gun in a car on school property, which is not the case in many states.
Essentially, to be completely law-abiding regarding carrying a pistol in your airplane, you must understand and comply with all federal, state, and local firearms laws applying to where you depart, fly over, and land. How you transport your weapon may be immaterial. Having your unloaded handgun in a locked box, or in your pocket, loaded, may or may not be legal. What is legal depends on where you are (state, county, or city).
If a pilot was to depart an airport in Ohio (an open carry state) with the destination in Maine (no permit required for concealed carry) and was forced to land in New Jersey or New York, the pilot could be in violation of serious firearms laws.
Here is an example of what a pilot could do before a flight with a firearm, that I did one day. I planned a flight departing Las Cruces (KLRU) for a short flight to Dona Ana County International Jetport Airport (KDNA) in Santa Teresa, New Mexico. Firearms laws in New Mexico come under the authority of the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, which is divided into two divisions, law enforcement (State Police) and technical and administrative.
First, I called the local State Police office and inquired if there were any state laws regarding firearms at New Mexico airports. I was told an expert on the subject would call me back (which she did). I learned there were no specific regulations regarding firearms on New Mexico airports, but airports would come under state laws and the municipality or county owning or operating the airport.
Next, I called the manager of KLRU and asked what firearms laws were in effect at the airport. He replied only the state firearms laws. So, I could drive on the airport (not having any commercial passenger service, there are no sterile areas) with a gun in my car, load it into my plane and depart. Then I called the manager at KDNA and asked if there were any restrictions on me landing there with a pistol in my plane. I was told compliance with state firearms laws was the only requirement.
Echoing this procedure allows you to understand any firearms restrictions when departing and landing. This does not cover unplanned landings along the way, however. To be 100 percent in compliance with gun laws anywhere you fly over, obtain a concealed carry permit for every state. If there is a state you cannot obtain a concealed carry permit, either stay away or leave your pistol at home.
One additional suggestion…check what you were told by reviewing a book on state gun laws to ensure you are not violating any of them.
When I carried a pistol in my plane, it was in a small weapons pouch, unloaded, and in my duffle bag. I was never searched by any law enforcement types. I also had a concealed carry permit, valid in most states I flew over or in. In some states, illegal possession of a firearm can lead to jail time. So, understand what laws apply to your flights and act accordingly.
While this article specifically addresses carrying and transporting handguns in general aviation aircraft, we should note that unloaded handguns may be transported by commercial air carriers in checked baggage. Each airline has specific requirements for the container used to transport a handgun. See Title 49 CFR Part 1540.111 for details.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives Regulations
Carrying Firearms on Aircraft: aerolegalservices.com
Federal Aviation Regulations
Gun Control Act of 1968
State Firearms Laws: Wikipedia or any books on the subject.
Transporting Firearms on Aircraft: AOPA.org
Travel Guide for Gun Owners: USLawShield.com/TravelReport
EDITOR’S NOTE: Pilot, Viet Nam veteran and former university professor, Bob Worthington of Las Cruces, New Mexico, is the author of “Under Fire with ARVN Infantry” (https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/Under-Fire-with-ARVN-Infantry/), and producer of the 2019 film “Combat Advisor in Vietnam” (www.borderlandsmedia.com). Facebook: Bob Worthington Writer. Website: www.BobWorthingtonWriter.com. Bob Worthington has placed excerpts about combat flying in Vietnam (from his books) on his website. Here is a direct link to those excerpts: www.BobWorthingtonWriter.com/combat-flying-in-vietnam/. Every couple of months, he adds another excerpt.
DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author and is not intended to be legal advice. Readers are urged to seek the advice of others, and refer to publications and resources available from local, state, and federal government, including the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association. Neither the author, Midwest Flyer Magazine, Flyer Publications, Inc., or their staffs, employees or advertisers assume any liability for the accuracy or content of this column or any other column or article in this publication.