The Carl Gustaf Recoilless Rifle Confiscated By TSA Was All Legal

A Carl Gustaf 84mm recoilless rifle was confiscated by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) from a passenger flying out of the San Antonio International Airport in Texas this week. Despite reports that have been circulating and TSA’s initial claims on the matter, it turns out that the weapon was demilitarized and could fly as checked luggage, although that is not how things ended up working out.

The Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle, which you can read all about here, is a man-portable multi-purpose weapon that can be used to engage a variety of targets, including tanks and armored vehicles, with an array of different ammunition types. Designed by the Sweden-based defense company Saab, the Carl Gustaf weighs less than 15 pounds and measures under three feet in length. What makes the weapon ‘recoilless’ is its inherent ability to allow some of the propelling gasses to escape out the back when fired. The system has seen a big surge in popularity with various military units around the world in recent years.

A Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle with a computerized sighting system. Credit: U.S. Army

The incident in question occurred on Monday, January 16, after TSA discovered the Carl Gustaf in a passenger’s checked luggage that afternoon. The owner’s identity has been kept anonymous aside from them being male. According to KSNV News 3 Las Vegas, an NBC News affiliate, the man was leaving San Antonio on a flight to Nevada for the Shooting and Hunting Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show in Las Vegas. 

SHOT Show opened yesterday and will continue through January 20, and the passenger was reportedly taking the weapon to the event for exhibition purposes. SHOT Show is largely regarded as the nation’s largest shooting, hunting, and outdoor industry trade expo.

Travelers are permitted to fly with checked firearms as long as they adhere to the TSA’s guidelines and comply with local and federal laws concerning the possession of firearms. TSA defines a firearm as, “any weapon (including a starter gun) which will, or is designed to, or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive; the frame or receiver of any such weapon; any firearm muffler or firearm silencer; and any destructive device.”

A TSA officer watches travelers go through a security checkpoint. Credit: Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) does not outright ban civilian ownership of ‘destructive devices’ like the Carl Gustaf either, as long as the necessary ownership requirements, background checks, and fees have been completed and cleared. Still, they are highly regulated. At the state level, Texas more or less follows the federal statute for ownership, though the laws and regulations of various state and local jurisdictions vary.

“You may transport unloaded firearms in a locked hard-sided container as checked baggage only,” reads TSA’s restrictions on transporting firearms and ammunition. “Declare the firearm and/or ammunition to the airline when checking your bag at the ticket counter. The container must completely secure the firearm from being accessed.” Obviously, a Carl Gustav is not a 9mm pistol or a hunting rifle, though.

So, here’s where the miscommunication started. On Monday, January 16 at 12:42 P.M. likely shortly after the weapon was confiscated, the @TSA_SouthWest Twitter account shared a post saying that they had discovered the weapon and claimed that the owner had neglected to declare it at the check-in counter when checking his luggage as TSA requires. This process allows the airline to openly communicate with TSA, informing them of any checked items on their upcoming outbound flights that would otherwise be a cause for concern if not reported. 

The TSA’s tweet not only included a photo of the Carl Gustaf tucked away in a padded hard-shell case, just as their guidelines require, but a follow-up post shared by the agency a day later walked back the ‘undeclared’ statement. TSA admitted that the owner is now confirmed, as Express News reports, to have properly checked and declared the luggage containing the weapon with the help of the airline he’d be flying with. 

On top of that, when ultimately detained following the discovery of the weapon, the passenger was able to provide TSA with all of the necessary paperwork explaining that his Carl Gustaf was demilitarized. This means the weapon’s components that allow it to fire had been rendered inoperable, essentially leaving it as a prop weapon. Dallas News also reported that a TSA explosives specialist was able to confirm that the weapon would not fire. 

What this means is that the overall misunderstanding started at the check-in desk. The owner of the Carl Gustaf followed all of the necessary protocols and procedures required of all travelers by TSA to check and fly with a weapon, even with his being demilitarized, but the airline failed to let TSA know that they should expect it in the checked luggage for this flight.

In the end, out of “an abundance of caution,” as TSA described it in their tweet, the passenger was directed to re-book a different flight to Nevada and leave his weapon in TSA’s possession for a local family member to come and pick up. When contacted by The War Zone to ask why the passenger couldn’t still fly with his demilitarized Carl Gustaf after everything was resolved, a TSA southwest spokesperson replied as follows:

“The passenger did everything correctly, but TSA Officers were not aware the passenger declared the item. TSA recommends that if someone is traveling with large caliber weapons or similar items that they coordinate with TSA either a day or two prior to travel or allow enough time prior to the flight for TSA to validate the information/paperwork provided. These days with computers and graphics, our officers are required to validate paperwork provided with items such as these.”

Some of the check-in desks inside the San Antonio International Airport. Credit: Getty Images

The TSA has said that it confiscated a record number of guns from airline passengers last year alone, 6,542 to be exact. CBS News said this is the highest number recorded since the agency was established, and 88% of the guns were loaded.

While the same TSA spokesperson also told local Texas outlet KENS 5 that TSA thankfully doesn’t see a Carl Gustaf-caliber of weapon very often, that isn’t to say that things like inert grenades or rocket-propelled grenade launchers don’t turn up every once and a while. The appearance of the Carl Gustaf recoilless rife was clearly one of these very rare occurrences.

Author’s note: While The War Zone was cleared to use the initial statement provided to us by TSA in response to why the passenger wasn’t ultimately allowed to fly with his demilitarized Carl Gustaf even after declaring it to the airline, the agency has since reached out asking if they could tweak their answer. The quote included in this article now reflects their updated response.

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