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Part I of "Annoying the TSA"

For good reason, U.S. law forbids people from carrying firearms on planes. However, last I checked, black powder "antique weapons" (such as cap-and-ball revolvers) aren't considered firearms.

With that in mind, would it be legal to carry an unloaded (since you aren't allowed to have black powder or primers) cap-and-ball revolver on a plane?

Note: I'm not asking for legal advice, nor do I plan to actually do so if it's legal; this is just a random "what-if" thought that's been bugging me for the last few months.

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    This definition only applies to the National Firearm Act. Louisiana defines a firearm as: For the purposes of this Section, "firearm" means any pistol, revolver, rifle, shotgun, machine gun, submachine gun, black powder weapon, or assault rifle which is designed to fire or is capable of firing fixed cartridge ammunition or from which a shot or projectile is discharged by an explosive.
    – Tiger Guy
    Jun 26, 2023 at 20:01
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    Do you understand that you cannot fly with even toy guns? Even if they look like "space lasers" more than pistols? You cannot fly with a paper-weight that resembles a hand grenade. The TSA has detailed info here: tsa.gov/travel/security-screening/whatcanibring/all and tsa.gov/travel/security-screening/whatcanibring/firearms
    – abelenky
    Jun 26, 2023 at 20:15
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    @vsz the ban is on weapons not firearms
    – Trish
    Jun 27, 2023 at 8:38
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    Well before 9/11, in fact some time back in the 1980s, I had to box up a softball bat at the check-in counter because I was not going to be allowed to carry it on the plane. So yeah, the scope of what counts as a "weapon" is broad and has been for some time.
    – shoover
    Jun 27, 2023 at 18:00
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    Famously, the TSA has prevented people from boarding with objects that almost nobody would consider a weapon - fingernail clippers, metal rulers, protractors, teasing-combs, even a weighted bookmark. Prior to 9/11 nobody would've considered box-cutters could be effective weapons, so it's sort of understandable, but it has gotten a bit over-blown. Jun 28, 2023 at 17:58

3 Answers 3

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The relevant regulations in 49 CFR 1540 refer to weapons, not firearms, and unless you are specifically permitted, you cannot carry a weapon in your carry-on luggage. The interpretation of "weapon" is given here, which says

Weapons are objects that may be used to attack another. TSA considers an item to be a weapon under 49 CFR 1540.111 if it is created for use as a weapon or is so similar to an item created as a weapon that it appears to be, or is easily used as, a weapon.

Weapons include firearms, as well as realistic replicas of firearms that may reasonably be thought to be actual weapons. Such realistic replicas are prohibited because their similarity in appearance to real weapons may allow them to be used to intimidate passengers and flight crew. The screener has the discretion to determine when a replica is so realistic that it should be prohibited. Other toy weapons will be allowed in the sterile areas and cabin.

Partial weapons and parts of weapons also are prohibited because they may be carried separately by collaborators for assembly subsequent to entry or boarding. In addition, partial weapons may appear to be operative and could be used to intimidate passengers and flight crew.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Law Meta, or in Law Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – feetwet
    Jun 28, 2023 at 18:28
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TSA considers Antique Firearms the same as any other Weapon, even unloaded ones.

CFR 49 § 1540.111 Carriage of weapons, explosives, and incendiaries by individuals.

(a) On an individual's person or accessible property—prohibitions. Except as provided in paragraph (b) of this section, an individual may not have a weapon, explosive, or incendiary, on or about the individual's person or accessible property—

(2) When the individual is entering or in a sterile area; or

(3) When the individual is attempting to board or onboard an aircraft for which screening is conducted under §§ 1544.201, 1546.201, or 1562.23 of this chapter.

Firearms in the relevant law only appear for law enforcement during duties (§ 1540.111 (b)) and the transport in checked luggage. (§ 1540.111 (c)). The Sterile area is past the TSA checkpoint.

In 2021, TSA stopped a person in Newark for trying to fly with an unloaded antique revolver. They could not fly with the gun in their carry-on bag, he was allowed to deposit the gun somewhere off premises, but it is not known if they returned in time to catch their flight.

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Black powder guns are considered firearms, they are just treated differently than modern cartridge fed weapons under the sub-set "antique firearms". This category changes how the ATF regulates them, specifically with regard to dealer licensing requirements, shipping, logging sales, performing background checks, etc.

However, the TSA is not part of the ATF, and considering the extensive list of things banned from the passenger cabin of airliners, (including BB guns, which are not firearms) it would be illogical to presume that antique status of a weapon might make it acceptable to carry one onto an airplane.

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    Tthe reason OP presumes the antique status is relevant is that the TSA cites 18 USC Ch. 44, which states that the term firearm "does not include an antique firearm." Of course, the TSA has also issued press releases warning that antique and replica firearms are disallowed.
    – Brian
    Jun 26, 2023 at 19:22
  • @Brian, as well as pneumatic guns, which are even more definitely not firearms. Jun 26, 2023 at 19:24
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    It should be pointed out that most collectors of antique firearms consider them more desirable if they are in working condition despite their age, and many are as lethal today as they were back in the day (most innovations in guns improved accuracy or rate of fire. Small bits of metal traveling at supersonic speeds are still the primary kill mechanism.).
    – hszmv
    Jun 26, 2023 at 19:35
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    @hszmv, I agree with you, but I don't think it's relevant to the answer. Velocity was another innovation occurring around the time of the 1898 changeover. (Most BP weapons and current cartridge pistols are subsonic BTW). Jun 26, 2023 at 19:41

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