Amazing lifehack: Pack a starter pistol to deter luggage theft

It was really dumb of me to put a camera into a piece of checked luggage, but I did, and now an airport baggage handler somewhere is one camera richer. It’s my fault, of course. My only excuse is that I almost never check bags, so when I packed this one I was thinking carry-on, not checked.

In searching around for similar cases, I found this tale of a guy who found his stolen camera on eBay, tracked down the thief, and got him arrested.

In the comments, mixed in with the debate about whether or not Delta should have granted the refund he requested (they didn’t), there’s this amazing bit of advice lifted from a comment on another blog:

One note on using TSA rules to your advantage.

Weapons that travel MUST be in a hard case, must be declared upon check-in, and MUST BE LOCKED by a TSA official.

A “weapons” is defined as a rifle, shotgun, pistol, airgun, and STARTER PISTOL. Yes, starter pistols – those little guns that fire blanks at track and swim meets – are considered weapons…and do NOT have to be registered in any state in the United States.

I have a starter pistol for all my cases. All I have to do upon check-in is tell the airline ticket agent that I have a weapon to declare…I’m given a little card to sign, the card is put in the case, the case is given to a TSA official who takes my key and locks the case, and gives my key back to me.

That’s the procedure. The case is extra-tracked…TSA does not want to lose a weapons case. This reduces the chance of the case being lost to virtually zero.

It’s a great way to travel with camera gear…I’ve been doing this since Dec 2001 and have had no problems whatsoever.

What a brilliant hack!

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73 thoughts on “Amazing lifehack: Pack a starter pistol to deter luggage theft

  1. I agree with Richard, and will go a step further – why make work harder for the people that are trying to provide security? Reminds me of the talks I have with my kids all the time – my job (as Dad) is to help them with their homework, their skills, their activities – but I can’t DO my job of helping them when I’m busy making sure they clean up their room, stop bickering, brush their teeth, etc. etc. etc.
    Let the TSA officials do what they’re supposed to do.

    1. Which is what, harass innocent people? Or just stand there looking dumb…

      If you think these guys actually provide security obviously you’re not all that well informed.

      1. So are you saying we would be just as safe without TSA?

        Would you fly if there was no security? I didn’t think so. So don’t be calling these guys worthless

    2. @Cheese1

      yes.With less TSA I’d feel just as safe as I would on public transport.

      Only a fool, or a very frequent flier on big airplanes should be concerned.

      Besides, I’d sooner have over half of the passengers armed with something substantial than all unarmed except for the person who did everything to circumvent the rules to take over a plane with a stapler. You know, the bad guys, the people these rules are supposed to stop in the first place.

  2. Would this hack work
    – on international flights / non-US airports?
    – my name were Mohammed and I had a Saudi passport?

  3. What a profoundly stupid idea.

    A starter pistol is a pistol. They are lethal at close distance. Their ‘toy-like’ appearance belies their serious nature & makes them attractive to children & idiots. The classic boneheaded move is to ‘goof around’ holding the pistol to someone’s head & firing it. This either kills the victim, or seriously injures them.

    Yes, people have died from starter pistols, disproportionately children. This leaves someone dead, and someone else a murderer.

    Instead of going through the complexity of getting a permit for a pistol (required in many jurisdictions), assuring proper home storage of your gun, going through the additional hassle of transporting it (you think your TSA-wait is long now? Wait till you wait to get your luggage TSA-secured!) instead consider not putting (in)valuables in your luggage.

    Ship your (in)valuables.

    Seriously. A week in advance or next-day, ship them to your destination. Pack them securely in a sturdy box, get the proper insurance, send it on. You’ll have one less piece of luggage to worry about when you’re traveling and they’ll arrive in better shape then your suitcases.

    No weapons needed, no extra lines at the airport, less to collect at the baggage carousel.

    1. You sir are an idiot.

      Guns dont kill people, people do. and someone who kills themself with a starter pistol probly deserves to die.

      Fantastic hack, the best hacks DONT SCALE. Next time id use a real pistol…

  4. “Seriously. A week in advance or next-day, ship them to your destination. ”

    I don’t know a professional photographer around who could spend a week without his gear, and paying to overnight it everywhere you go would be prohibitively costly.

    “… instead consider not putting (in)valuables in your luggage.”

    How about, “Instead, why doesn’t the TSA take responsibility for the items we trust to their care if they’re going to insist that we can’t protect them via the rudimentary system of ‘locks’ which have been around for a couple hundred years?”

    “… why make work harder for the people that are trying to provide security?”

    Yeah, because rummaging through my underwear does loads for “security”. And by that I mean “financial security”, and I mean it as in “the TSA weenie’s financial security when he steals my stuff.”

    The TSA is the second-biggest black hole of “money wasted” that I can see since 9/11 (with #1 being “the war on terror”).

    “This leaves someone dead, and someone else a murderer.”

    Technically in that case it’s almost certainly manslaughter, not murder. Few people *try* to kill other people with starter-pistols, and murder is about intent.

  5. Who’s to say the TSA is trustworthy? It wouldn’t be the first time that someone used a TSA lock and had stuff taken out of their bags.

    Also, 99% of those TSA-approved locks are junk. I must’ve gone through about a dozen of them. Consider them “single-use items”, because by the time you get to the other end, I’ve invariably had to use a pair of snips to break the lock open because the mechanism itself was trashed.

  6. The TSA–charade for rubes or effective at something or other, isn’t the issue.

    The point is how to transport valuables efficiently & securely when traveling.

    A starter pistol is almost surely more effort then it is worth. It’ll get your luggage more attention, it’ll also get you more attention along all steps of your travel, always of the unproductive sort.

    My concern is a bunch of goobers go out and get starter pistols thinking they’re some sort of luggage-talisman. They’re not, and indeed if the goal is a hassle-free flight they’re counter-productive.

    For most of us who are flying we’re investing some significant sum of funds. Airfare, food, accommodations, vehicle rentals, bar tabs, whatever. Compared to that the cost of shipping equipment is trivial. In the case of professionals it is also tax-deductible.

    Furthermore having been a very frequent flier I can assure you the FedEx’s of the wold are far more reliable about getting material to their destination then passenger air carriers, and much more responsible when there is a problem.

    It is my long-standing policy if whatever tools I need for my trade can’t fit in my carry-on, along with my general in-case-of-lost-luggage supplies, then it gets shipped. Even at US$100 it is worth it to me to have my tools at my hotel waiting for me, reliably, insured, with a tracking number, then standing at the carousel hoping mine was just the last unloaded…

    1. One quick response to the ones talking about sending the stuff, it is not a trivial cost and there are items that are needed up until you get on the plane and then as soon as you get off. I work abroad and know that to send anything secure, with any expediancy (we are talking like a month or more, not days or even a week) can cost up to half a plane ticket when traveling internationally. It costs me almost $100 to send a letter via the cheapest fedex option to where i am now, imagine how much a camera would cost. No, the starter pistol isn’t a bad idea except I am not as sure about how other countries would react to it.

  7. I wouldn’t resort to this hack myself, but I was amused by the irony of it, and was in need of a bit of amusement. I’m kicking myself for forgetting which bag that camera was in.

    An interesting (but expensive) experiment to try: Give 100 digicams to 100 travelers to put into checked bags. I wonder how many would show up on the other end?

  8. Absolutely briliant idea! I don’t agree with the whole “safety guy just doing their job” crap. If that was true than we wouldn’t have to worry about stuff being stolen.

  9. Whaaa, i’m gona start packing a real gun in my tool case with my laptop and other craft tools.

    Oh, yes I have a Conceal Carry Permit, which is good in quite a few states.

    “The Second Amendment is the glue that still holds this Country together.”

  10. Ya know, why not drop a few hundred more than you would on a starter pistol and pick up a decent pistol? Take a few safety classes, get a permit, and get baggage protection and protection for your camera outside of the airport ;)

  11., the world leaders in internet based luggage tracking, has developed a RFID enabled luggage tag for tracking lost luggage worldwide via the internet at

    This is the latest innovation by the forward thinking company, which was established in 1999 to combat the growing problem of lost baggage and has sold their unique luggage tags to travelers around the globe.

  12. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend shipping things. I live in Mexico and things that get sent here are notorious for getting “lost.” It’s happened to me with packages that I sent from the US. FedEx and more expensive services are generally more reliable, although a worker at the US post office recommended to me that I not bother to buy insurance or send the package in an expensive “safer” way (at least via the normal post office) because he said it usually didn’t matter, the packages got lost anyway.

  13. TSA allows for 1 carryon plus peronal item (including laptop bags, cameras, purses, breifcase, small backpack etc). You should be able to get key equipment in a carryon plus reasonable camera/laptop bag.

    TSA’s site specifically says not to put valuables in your bag. Apparently they know their $8.00 employees will steal them.

    Here is TSA’s page detailing carry-on rules (which most airlines follow):

    FYI “Mia says” is comment spam. The exact same comment appears on other posts that contains the phrases like “lost luggage”. Here is one example…

  14. blah… I tried to comment and got an error about it being a duplicate comment?!

    Anyways, TSA says you can bring 1 carry-on plus a personal item (which includes laptop bag, camera case, small backpack, etc).

    More importantly, comment #15 “Mia says” is comment spam. That exact comment appears on other blogs talking about lost luggage. When I say exact, I mean word for word and by a busy Mia. Here is one example:

  15. great idea – though i doubt my husband would let me purchase a starter pistol. i’m just too damn clumsy to handle anything with the word “pistol” in it.

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  17. Dont Let TSA lock your case. They are not supposed to, and you are not required to allow them to. Rather, the keys to the case should be in your possession at all times, and you are the one who opens the case to show them the pistol and then closes and locks the case when all is said and done.

    That said, to the extent I’m traveling somewhere where it is legal to bring a gun, i always bring a gun. Not just for self protection (but yes, thats nice) but mostly because traveling to and from the DC area I find that its always quicker and easier with less hassle to go to the TSA line for checking a firearm if I am going to check luggage on a plane.

  18. I think his equipment was stolen out of his luggage, correct?
    That is so horrible. Someone actually opened his stuff and took it.
    So those globaltags would not of helped in this case. (other then possible the $8.00 employee might of been scared off by something
    official looking)
    The started pistol is an interesting idea, but I agree with others, that would bring too much of the wrong kind of attention in the big scheme of things.

  19. Linda,

    I think you mean “would not *have* helped,” and “might *have* been scared off”

    And I disagree. Checking a gun is a good way to make sure no-one messes with you or your stuff.

  20. TSA locks? Useless if you ask me (and about twice as expensive as a normal one). Last time I travelled, with my TSA locks in place, my bag arrived with clipped off zippers (which makes the bag unlockable from now on) and the typical friendly “we had to open your bag” note from the TSA inside.

    Nothing was missing… but still.

  21. I have a carry permit in my home state, and by default, I have reciprocity in several other states. I travel a lot for business and in the past, I have flown with pistols (the real kind). However, lately, I just don’t like to do it, and here’s why:

    1. The only thing that gets locked is your gun CASE, not your luggage. So now I have a gun that I love in an UNLOCKED suitcase and out of my control. Not my idea of feeling comfortable.

    2. Flying with a gun means I am FORCED to check luggage and I just hate checking luggage in general. First because I don’t want to wait 40 minutes by the baggage carousel. But the bigger thing is that I simply don’t trust the airlines to get my bag from one city to the next, and my feeling of unease increases when there’s a gun at stake.

    That being said, I think flying with a starter pistol to ensure the safety of your expensive camera equipment is a stupid idea. If some TSA or baggage handler schmuck wants to steal your equipment, he can do so, no matter what else you have in the luggage with it.

    ~Monica Ricci

  22. Actually, this is completely wrong. All airline policies as well as TSA policies prohibit marking or tracking firearms in checked luggage in any way, simply because they will get stolen. This includes special handling marks, computer tracking, separate bins, etc. Same reason the UPS and FedEx don’t mark packages containing guns.

    So, sorry. The starter pistol you declare does not decrease your chances of losing your luggage in any way, shape, or form.

  23. The relevant law is USC 18 922(e):

    “No common or contract carrier shall require or cause any label, tag, or other written notice to be placed on the outside of any package, luggage, or other container that such package, luggage, or other container contains a firearm.”

  24. I travel often. I never pack anything very valuable. (laptops, video cam, xBox360… all go carry on with me)

    Instead of trusting TSA Locks, I use bright zip ties. Anyone that was to go through my stuff will have to use a wire cutter (easy to come by), but they will not be able to “hide” the fact that they opened it. With any lock, you simply close it and there is no way to tell that it was ever opened. Since I started using the Zip Ties. I’ve had my bags opened once, and there was a specific TSA note inside to say so. BTW – the neon zip ties also help me identify my back at baggage claim.

  25. what a great HACK! It’s the hackiest hack that I’ve ever hacked! I can’t think of another hack that hacks quite like this hack. I hack you to show me another hack that hacks like this hack hacks.

  26. TSA locks provide no security! The key only has to fit through the hole in the steel casing, and the tumbler can be turned by any instrument that can fit through the shaped hole in the casing — try it with a small flathead screwdriver if you’ve got one!

  27. This is great. I have a digital camera that was trashed in river accident, that looks fine, but is totally broken. And on the front of it is a very nice looking lens that got dropped. Cosmetically nice, but totally inoperative. I may just plunk it in the luggage on my next trip and see if someone will go to the trouble of stealing this totally useless chunk of glass and metal.

  28. The only checked bag I’ve ever had lost was one containing two (declared) handguns. It was a Southwest flight from SNA to OAK. After I told them what they lost they said they’d make a special effort to find it and would deliver it the next day to the house at which I was staying. I said I probably wouldn’t be there. They said, “no problem”; they would just leave it on the doorstep. (!?) Absolute idiots.

  29. Starter pistols are not lethal. You can’t die from one unless you chock on it or beat yourself to death with one. I have one I use for swim meets and the barrel is solid. You are thinking of BLANKS being fired from a pistol.

  30. I have never had this problem.

    But then I don’t travel in the United States. Go figure…

  31. This is selfish. Let the airline try to do what they already suck at already. Hack my ass, this is like calling 911 to get to the hospital for ED.

  32. Absolutely brilliant idea!

    And by the way, I wish some of you could dispense with the anti-gun rhetoric and drama. Why the h*ll do these things always turn political?

  33. 1) The theft of your camera was not your fault. True, you should’ve known better, but it’s still not your fault. You are not the criminal.

    2) Why puss out and pack a starter pistol? Pack a real piece; it has more in-your-face-mofo value.

  34. Michael Maggard,

    In response to your, starter pistols are still pistols….they are not. A starter pistol is designed to “shoot” and I use this term loosely, crimped no-projectile caps. It looks like a normal bullet except there is no lead, only a crimped metal end. The barrels are made of solid construction so that no other ammunition can be fired, and often the cylinders/chambers are not made to accommodate a full sized round.

    The fatalities attributed to these items, normally involve the deceased having pointed the starter pistol at a law enforcment officer.

    To the original poster, nice hack. :D

  35. Giving your bag ‘more’ scrutiny does not equal ‘security’ in this climate. So far as the US is concerned, the TSA is like the Army. Its a big employer that brings in all kinds, from the average well-meaning person to slightly intelligent, off the street scum. The more hands that touch your goods, and despite the lock they will be looked through, the more likely something that isnt a starter pistol will go missing. Got something valuable? Ship it or carry it. If its large, air-freight it and pick it up at the airport you land at (within reason). Youd be surprised how much cheaper it is than a typical brand courier in some cases*.

    *Past experience(s) was $70 overnight for at least 100 lbs of paper product. Just pack it well.

  36. I’m confused why everyone is blaming the TSA for the theft(s); there are more airline baggage handlers touching your bags than there are TSA employees.

  37. This is not entirely true. Yes, it will lock everything up and you will have the key, but TSA does not “Extra-track” the package. They just lost a .45 pistol of mine and have no idea where it went missing.

  38. I’m a professional photographer too and sometimes have to pack extra, less expensive gear in my carry on. I’ve just lost a flash unit and was given a complete run around by the TSA who said i needed to make a claim with American, American, of course says to take it up with TSA since they went thru my bag.
    TSA is of course responsible since they have the authority to not only go through your luggage, but also can remove anything they feel is unsafe, or something they may like to have for themselves. If i’m putting unsafe items in my checked baggage, shouldn’t i be stopped and questioned, or would this only alert me to the fact that they’ve stolen something from my luggage?

  39. This is not a “Hack” it does not fit into the standard and accepted definition of what Hack means. All this “life hack” stuff is ridiculous. Consult MW if you care to disbelieve.

    On topic, I have also tried this (but with a Glock 17) and it works wonders. I “lost” a laptop not too long ago on AA (which they denied). Now I don’t “lose” anything.

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  41. Good idea, but you could just pack dirty cloths around all of your stuff. That will deter some people. Personally I think it is a shame that you have to go through so much traveling these days.

  42. Good idea, but you could just pack dirty cloths around all of your stuff.

    I did. The X-ray saw right through them, though :-(

  43. I don’t know who is more likely to steal — the TSA employees or the baggage handlers, but all I know is that I’ve had my luggage rifled through many times and been lucky so far. I’m traveling soon and will be carrying on my laptop and camera. If I had more time I would try the starter pistol idea — I think we have no choice but to try anything that will work to combat airport thieves.

  44. Its amazing to me how the personnel that inspect the luggage can open and go through your bags and leave a tag saying so but deny responsibility when something is stolen from you bag. I kind of makes you want to leave all your dirty socks and dirty underwear for them to find.

  45. As of recent, TSA is making huge strides to change their polices, including such policies as pet friendly air travel. Write a letter and see what they say. Won’t hurt to try right?

  46. This is an absolutely gem of a tip. However don’t they question the reasons for carrying etc when declaring a weapon.

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