I commented briefly on Twitter about my experiences with law enforcement in a recent trip through Seattle-Tacoma airport, checking a firearm. I had requests for information about what actually happened, and that would've been like 30 tweets, so I decided to write about it here, instead.
I was returning from a trip and went to check my Sig Sauer P228. If you've never checked a firearm, the specifics of it vary from airport to airport - there are no uniform standards on how it works. Variation is common (and often nonsensical), but as in dealing with any bureaucracy you quickly learn that arguing that the rules are pointless is...well, pointless and just shrug and nod.
Generally speaking in most airports (including SFO, the main airport I fly out of), you "declare" that you have a firearm to the checking agent. She then gives you a "declaration form" which you sign (basically saying "Hey I have a firearm in this luggage"). They then have an agent take you to a special TSA room - or in some cases, wait for the TSA to send someone over. Either way, a TSA agent will hand-inspect your bag, and present you with the locked case your firearm is in. You then unlock it for him, and he looks at it. In some airports, they then put the declaration inside the case (which is idiotic since they don't have the key and can't see it any more). In most, they put it right next to the case in your bag. The TSA agent then places the bag into the mainstream baggage handling process.
If you fail to declare your firearm in checked luggage you can face civil and criminal penalties. TSA says that "[l]oaded firearms (or unloaded firearms with accessible ammunition)" (which is the way I always travel with mine, unloaded with accessible ammunition) face a civil fine of "$3,000 - $7,500" plus "Criminal Referral". In other words, they arrest you, and let the DA decide whether he's going to charge you. I have no idea why the penalty for this is so extreme - are they worried the gun is going to jump out of the luggage and start shooting things? Literally they are threatening criminal prosecution simply for failing to fill out a form - even if your transport (locked and unloaded) is otherwise legal.
When I walked up to the Virgin America counter, there were two agents there. I told them I was flying with a firearm, and one immediately handed me a declaration card and told me that she needed me to sign it, and then to watch me put it in the locked case. I commented to her how stupid it was that I had to put it in the locked case that only I have the key to, since no one would be able to see it, but hey, rules, whatever. I did so. She then conferred with a male also behind the counter and they both agreed with each that was all there was to it, and put the bag on the conveyor with the rest of the luggage.
Note there was no hand-inspection by TSA. I wasn't actually worried by this. I've flown out of airports in the southeast where that is the policy, and never had a problem. Always seemed like a strange procedure to me, but, again, the logic is so often missing from these processes that I was mostly just happy I didn't have to stand around waiting for the TSA guy for twenty minutes the way I always do in SFO. I proceeded through security and was just finishing a slice of pizza at Sbarro when my phone rang, with a Seattle area code. It was a woman from Virgin America and she was wondering if I could come to gate A4 and find her and the very tall police officer she was with to discuss the firearm in my luggage?
Here's what seems to have happened: At Seattle, the policy is the same as SFO - TSA is supposed to hand-inspect the luggage. The agents put it through the normal luggage stream; TSA xrayed it, and said "Hey this guy has a firearm in his luggage". They then opened my luggage, looking for the declaration form, which they could not find because the agent had me lock it in the case. Obviously, from their perspective, I had checked a firearm without declaring it, so they called the cops on me.
The officer was quite polite. I related my story to the Virgin America supervisor and him. The supervisor immediately assumed I was telling the truth and started to go on an internal manhunt to figure out who'd been manning the gate, all the while muttering about the fact that she had no new employees and everyone had been there for at least a year and darn well should know better. I talked to the officer for a bit, and he seemed to be pretty sympathetic to my story, but he made it pretty clear that if, when we opened the case, there was not a declaration form in it as I described, he was going to have to arrest me.
All three of us walked down into the bowels of the airport - going out on the tarmac to get in - to where TSA had my bag sitting open. I gave my key to the officer; he opened the locked case, and, of course, the declaration was there. TSA demanded my driver's license and phone number for their report. I considered not divulging it - I'd committed no crime and wasn't in a security line - but at the end of the day they already had my phone number (they'd called me) and Virgin has my contact info, so there seemed little profit in being intransigent at that point. We all walked back upstairs, the VA supervisor apologized and stalked off to find those responsible.
I'd say the bottom line is to be suspicious if you're told to put your declaration card in the locked case and not get hand-screened by TSA. I imagine that checking a firearm out of SEA via Virgin America will actually be quite smooth in the near future - TSA was absolutely not happy with Virgin either and I'm sure there is some remedial training in those agents' future.