By Scott L. Bach
The Firearms Owner Protection Act (18 U.S.C. § 926A) – "FOPA” for short – was passed by Congress in 1986 to address abuses of gun laws from various states resulting in prosecution and imprisonment of peaceable gun owners travelling with firearms.
FOPA pre-empts state law and provides that if it is lawful for a traveller to possess firearms at both the points of departure and destination, then it is lawful to transport firearms anywhere in between during the course of travel – regardless of what local law says in the intervening states.
In order for FOPA to apply, the firearm must be unloaded and neither the firearm nor any ammunition being transported can be "readily accessible or directly accessible from the passenger compartment of the transporting vehicle.” In vehicles without a trunk, the firearm and ammunition must be in a locked container other than the glove compartment or console.
It must also be lawful for the traveller to possess firearms in the two jurisdictions where the travel begins and ends. Careful consideration of laws in both jurisdictions is advisable. Since local laws vary widely, there are no universally applicable guidelines. NRA-ILA publishes pamphlets analyzing the firearms laws of all 50 states, available online.
Some courts have held that the travel must be relatively prompt and direct in order for FOPA to apply, without undue delay in the course of travel other than as reasonably necessary.
FOPA's existence does not mean that local law enforcement will necessarily disregard local laws prohibiting possession and transportation of firearms. Many local police are not even aware of FOPA's existence (it's a good idea to have a copy of the law with you). In states like New Jersey, nonresidents with firearms are regularly arrested and prosecuted for local law violations. When the matter is finally sorted out in court, FOPA (if properly complied with) will be an absolute defense, but that is little consolation when an otherwise law-abiding citizen is arrested and imprisoned pending a hearing.
FOPA applies to all modes of transport. But airports in some anti-gun jurisdictions have become troublesome, where local police have disregarded FOPA and arrested travellers at check-in when declaring their firearms as required by FAA regulations. NRA is working to address this issue, and recently obtained a formal interpretation from the U.S. Attorney General addressing the problem. (For a PDF reproduction of this letter, click here.)
Scott L. Bach is Executive Vice President of ANJRPC and an NRA Director