Gun case laws when transporting, hunting or target shooting with a firearm or bow can be confusing or cumbersome—at best.
The one thing you always need when going hunting or shooting is a firearm or bow—or so you thought. In many states you also need a case in which to store or transport that firearm or bow, or some method of locking or disabling the firearm or bow. For obvious safety reasons, the gun or bow should generally be enclosed in a case that protects it, covers the trigger or string, and helps keep it clean and functioning properly. Not all states, however, require this, and not all hunters do this. And then there are the states that go to the extreme.
The problem, however, is that cased, covered or secured for transporting, and locked or disabled, mean different things in different states. If you travel to hunt you should do your due diligence and learn the regulations. In your home state you might also want to take a second look at the regulations and be certain you are following the law. And while some case laws are printed only in the deer hunting regulations section and worded only to apply to deer hunters, the case laws also apply to those going turkey hunting or small game hunting. If you have questions, you are not alone. If you are confused, you have a lot of company.
Some states’ case or transport laws are complex, confusing and cumbersome. Sorting out when and how the laws apply can be a hairy proposition. For example, Minnesota’s firearms possession law states: “No person may possess a firearm or ammunition outdoors during the period beginning the fifth day before the open firearms season and ending the second day after the close of the season within an area where deer may be legally taken by firearms.” There are exceptions, such as you could plink with a .22 rifle, transport a firearm in a case or motor vehicle trunk, or carry a handgun if you have a carry permit. Should you want to go down to your family farm and practice shooting in preparation for the upcoming deer season opener, it would possibly—or probably—be illegal. This wide-sweeping law also covers ordinary target shooters who might not have any clue about the game laws. The law is written to permit legal, in-season hunting for persons with a valid big game license in possession.
“This regulation has been on the books at least 20 years and maybe 50,” said Pat Watts, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MNDNR) law enforcement management analyst. “It used to be 10 days before and 5 days after but was modified a few years back. The reason for the rule is to be a similar type of tool as the two-day waiting period when a hunter buys a license.” That reason is to prevent poaching. But target shooting outside on private property falls into a gray area. The regulation does permit going to, and shooting at, an authorized target range, but even more questions arise when you try to determine what is an “authorized” range is.
“The wording permits you to use a regular commercial range, or a conservation officer can issue a permit so you can sight-in on your property,” said Watts. “You can still sight-in your deer hunting rifle, all you have to do is contact your local conservation officer for a free permit.” Apparently this is not widely known, and I did not discover it in print. In fact, shooters and hunters have been charged for failure to comply.
“There have been 32 summons and 42 warnings issued during the period from July 1, 2003 to date,” said MNDNR spokesperson Patti Holt of the number of hunters cited for this violation. “The law applies statewide, and, yes, its purpose is to keep someone from poaching.” A summons is a notice to be in court and levies a fine.
Minnesota, however, is very clear about cased firearms, gun cases, and how a case works. The regulation states: “A ‘cased’ firearm is defined as a firearm in a gun case expressly made to contain a firearm, when the case fully encloses the firearm by being zipped, snapped, buckled, tied, or otherwise fastened, with no portion of the firearm exposed. A holster is not a legal case.” The regulations also state that a person can only carry a firearm in a motor vehicle when the firearm is unloaded and cased, or unloaded and in the trunk—or rear—of a vehicle, with an exception for carry permit holders. Bows must also be either unstrung or completely contained in a case. I know some circles report that the bow must be cased when transported outside of legal hunting times, and this means carrying a case to your tree should you decide to walk back to your truck after dark with a bow in your hand. It’s a law that is very confusing for many hunters.
Across the border in Wisconsin, case laws state that firearms must be unloaded and completely enclosed in a case designed for firearms. This applies whether the vehicle is moving or stationary, and whether the firearm is inside or on the vehicle. You can see a lot of gray area about what happens when you are preparing or returning from a hunt and day afield. Wisconsin does permit target shooting on private lands year-round by the landowner and immediate family members who live with them. Sorry, no friends allowed!
In Maryland, a state without a case law, the hunting regulations state that it is unlawful to have a loaded firearm in, on, or leaning against any vehicle. This includes ammunition in the magazine—beyond removing a cartridge from the chamber—or a muzzleloader ready to fire.
In Illinois, it is unlawful “to have or carry a shotgun, rifle, handgun or airgun in or on any vehicle, conveyance or aircraft UNLESS the firearm or airgun is unloaded and completely enclosed in a case.” Yes, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has specific wording defining a case. The state does go further and specifies that “it is unlawful to carry a bow or bow and arrow device in a vehicle, conveyance or aircraft UNLESS it is unstrung or enclosed in a case, or otherwise made inoperable.” Some outfitting services make bows inoperable by placing a lock on the cam and limb of compound bows. In the gray area, I know someone who purchased a bow, had it set up at a bow shop, and was driving home. He had not been hunting and was not hunting when an enforcement officer discovered him stopped by a rural road answering the call of nature and issued a citation. Common sense is not covered in the printed regulations.
Some states provide few, if any, case and firearm transportation guidelines. There are no restrictions in South Carolina on transporting firearms by licensed hunters and fishermen in a vehicle to and from the place of hunting and fishing, except on Wildlife Management Area (WMA) lands. The regulations are printed as such. The WMA restrictions in force cover possessing .22 ammunition and buckshot shotshells.
“On a wildlife management area, the firearm has to be in a case while being transported,” said Mike Sabaka, a staff lieutenant with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resource’s law enforcement division. “We are pretty liberal down here and there are no gun case restrictions or requirements, except on the state lands. Also, we do restrict target practice on WMA lands. That activity must be in a designated target shooting area.”
And according to Tennessee’s Wildlife Resources Agency, on WMAs and Public Hunting Areas, all guns must be unloaded while being transported in those areas. A muzzleloader is considered to be unloaded if the cap is removed from the nipple. A crossbow is considered to be unloaded if the bolt is removed from the device. No case is required, and guns can lay across the seat or be placed in a gun rack in the vehicle.
Michigan adds a new twist to the transporting issues. It requires that all firearms be unloaded in the magazine and chamber (both) for transporting, and enclosed in a case or equipped with a closed trigger lock. No mention of where you have to store the trigger lock key. Firearms can also be carried in the trunk of a vehicle with a trunk. In case—pun intended—you wonder when the regulations apply, “the regulations are in effect whether your vehicle is parked, stopped, moving or is on private or public property.” Again, there’s the gray area about when you are preparing to go, or returning from, hunting.
In South Dakota, no person may possess a firearm while riding on or operating a snowmobile, motorcycle or off-road vehicle, unless the firearm is completely unloaded and completely enclosed in a carrying case. Apparently, a firearm does not have to be cased by hunters riding in a truck, as trucks are not mentioned in the rules. South Dakota’s Game, Fish and Park regulations also give numerous examples when uncased firearms and bows are permitted, and most are in specified areas during open hunting seasons. This printed text is actually easier to follow than many states’ vague case laws that create more questions than provide guidelines. But don’t get the idea that you can travel everywhere in South Dakota with a firearm on the truck seat. Firearms must be unloaded and cased when traveling through all national parks, national monuments and national memorials in the state.
South Dakota also further restricts or clarifies situations when vehicles and firearms are in use. The printed regulations are: “No person may allow a firearm to protrude from a motor vehicle or a conveyance attached to it while the vehicle is on a public road. However, a firearm may protrude from a motor vehicle when shooting at coyotes, jackrabbits, rodents, skunks, badgers, raccoons, and red and gray fox.” The state where nearly everyone loves a pheasant makes it possible for hunters to control predators and pests. Maybe this is the reason why the state has so many pheasants—and so many non-resident hunters lining up to hunt there.
In North Dakota, it is illegal to carry a firearm in or on a motor-driven vehicle with a cartridge in the chamber. The entire cylinder of a revolver is considered the chamber, requiring the revolver to be completely unloaded. It is illegal to carry any muzzleloading firearm in or on a motor-driven vehicle with a percussion cap or primer on the nipple or powder in the flash pan. No mention of firearms being confined or stored in gun cases.
Down in Texas there is no case law, and Texas Parks and Wildlife printed regulations covering firearms for hunting also stipulate that there is no restriction on the number of shells or cartridges a legal firearm may hold while hunting, with the exception of the federal guidelines for migratory bird hunting. It is customary to hunt deer from vehicles on some properties, and to hunt predators at night with the hunter possibly stationed on a platform on top of the vehicle.
As you can tell, hunting styles vary and so do the restrictions game departments place on hunters transporting firearms. It’s important to note that these regulation examples are pulled from various state regulation digests and should not be taken as binding legal guidelines. Concealed carry permits and guidelines, and local hunting laws, can and do vary. And some law enforcement agencies—and enforcement officers—might interpret the text differently and create different standards. In most cases—again, pun intended—you would be legal to have a firearm totally enclosed in a completely zipped gun case that’s stored in the trunk of a car. Of course, if you drive a truck with an open cargo bed, then you start to see that gray areas do exist when it comes to legally transporting firearms and bows to and from your hunting spot.