Traversing lonely stretches of highway; staying at unfamiliar and dimly lit campgrounds often removed from the mainstream; traveling in strange and sometimes unfriendly neighborhoods — these and a host of other travel scenarios can present considerable challenges to casual and even veteran RVers. There is occasionally the possibility that when you least expect it, you might run across potential threats or hazards to your personal safety.
Because of these risks and others, RVers often consider carrying defensive weapons such as handguns, rifles, Tasers, stun guns and even chemical sprays (for example, Mace and pepper spray) in their vehicles. It’s no wonder, then, that the biggest question facing most who wish to equip themselves for such reasons is: “What are my legal rights regarding weapon possession and concealment?”
Unfortunately, there is no single or easy answer. Moreover, it is virtually impossible to discuss all aspects of weapons possession, search and seizure, and citizens’ gun rights in a single article. The complexity of the laws at both the state and national levels makes it extremely difficult for the average citizen to understand just what is legal and what is not.
On a more positive note, with a general awareness and understanding of a few applicable statutes of the U.S. Constitution, and several federal case laws, most RVers should at least be able to make informed and correct decisions for themselves while traveling throughout the United States.
Firearms, Tasers, Stun Guns, Chemical Sprays
In the U.S., laws governing possession and concealment of firearms, Taser-type devices, stun guns and chemical sprays vary by location, and are often difficult to understand. They differ state by state and even city to city.
Nationally, the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the National Firearms Act have regulations that forbid certain people, such as convicted felons and illegal immigrants, from carrying arms; and regulate the licensing of full-automatic weapons, among other issues.
At the state and local levels, carrying a concealed firearm on one’s person or in an easily accessible location within a vehicle without a permit is almost always against the law. Merely transporting a loaded but unconcealed firearm on one’s person or in a motor vehicle can also be a violation; again, location is a factor.
Currently, 48 states allow “carry concealed weapon” (CCW) handgun permits for qualified residents. Some states now even let residents with valid CCWs carry in other states where “reciprocity agreements” are in place.
As an example, and based on information available at press time, Florida issues CCW permits on a “shall issue” basis to both residents and non-residents. Florida also recognizes permits from any other state that recognizes Florida’s permit, provided the individual is a resident of the other state and is at least 21 years old.
Likewise, Texas has a permit process that regulates the carrying of a concealed handgun in public. CCW permits are awarded on a “shall issue” basis to all qualified applicants, and the state recognizes most out-of-state concealed-carry permits.
California, on the other hand, is a “may issue” state for concealed carry. A license to carry a concealed firearm may be issued or denied to qualified applicants at the discretion of the county sheriff or municipal police chief where the applicant resides.
Storing loaded handguns and rifles in the residential confines of a motorhome is usually considered legal in most states, as long as they are not readily accessible to drivers or passengers while the vehicle is being operated on a highway. If a person still feels the need to have a firearm close at hand while traveling, it should be carried unloaded, in plain view, and with the bolt/cylinder open or clip removed.
Despite a national plethora of weapon laws, there are some noteworthy absolutes to consider before arming yourself. These are rather easy to remember, and may ultimately keep you out of jail:
Travel outside the U.S.: Never attempt to carry/transport a gun, Taser, stun gun or chemical protectant into Canada or Mexico. You will usually go directly to jail and your weapon will be confiscated, if permits have not been obtained ahead of time.
Assault rifles: Mere possession of an assault rifle (the definition varies from state to state) may be cause for arrest and seizure of the weapon. Before acquiring or traveling with such an item, be sure to check with individual state and local authorities first.
Automatic weapons: Fully automatic rifles, pistols and machine guns can only be possessed with a special tax stamp issued by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. You’ll also need authorization to transport these items across state lines.
Search and Seizure
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees people the right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable search and seizure. Furthermore, these rights shall not be violated unless there is probable cause for a warrant to be issued describing the place to be searched, and specified persons or things to be seized.
To further reinforce the intent of this statute and others within the Bill of Rights, the 14th Amendment promises that all personal liberties and rights bestowed at the federal level are likewise protected from infringement by state governments. These complex doctrines additionally contain the concepts of due process, right to privacy and equal protection of the law.
How does this translate into issues that RVers might find themselves involved in? The following focuses mainly on situations where officers can search associated with the commission of an illegal act (including traffic violations).
Whether your home is on wheels or permanently attached to a city lot in suburbia, it is not exempt from a legal search as long as due process has been observed. What makes motorhomes and other types of recreational vehicles on or near highways more vulnerable to being searched for probable cause without a warrant is a case law known as the “automobile exception rule.”
The automobile exception is spelled out in court rulings that include United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982); California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565 (1991); and California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386 (1985). These legal decisions and several others apply to vehicles being used on highways or are capable of such movement, including those found stationary in a place not regularly used for residential purposes, such as a parking lot.
Conversely, if an RV-type vehicle is located and hooked up at a campground or commercial park, an officer suspecting a crime at such a location would more than likely be required to obtain a search warrant from a judge or magistrate before conducting a search.
In all states, motorhomes, vans and vehicles towing trailers or carrying camper-type structures are considered “automobiles” for the purposes of search and seizure. When being operated as such on the highway, an officer with probable cause that a crime has or is being committed involving such a vehicle may stop it and perform a warrantless search for items relevant to the suspected crime (including driver and passengers if legally justified).
There are four primary ways in which an officer or government official may legally search premises, habitation or motor vehicle where the owner, operator or resident has a reasonable expectation
of privacy. These are:
Search warrant: To obtain a duly authorized written search warrant, officers must articulate probable cause to a magistrate (judge) in the form of factual knowledge and evidence of a crime. The training and experience of requesting officers is also taken into account.
Warrantless search: Where exigent (emergency) circumstances exist for officers investigating a crime or during an arrest, they may perform warrantless searches of persons, vehicles, locations or premises. Exigency means that an officer or innocent party is at immediate personal risk if a search is not performed (such as a pat-down for concealed weapons). When pertaining to a motor vehicle, the issue is whether the vehicle in question could be moved to places unknown before an officer might reasonably obtain a written search warrant.
Incidental to an arrest: If an officer is legally inside a residence, RV or other location and is then required to make an arrest, he may search cupboards, drawers, etc., for items directly related to the crime (Chimel  395 US 752). For the search to be legal, the original “entry” must also have been valid.
Consensual search: This refers to permission that is granted to an officer by a person in control of a vehicle, premises or other location. Under these conditions, case law is very explicit in protecting citizens against duress by authorities. However, if consent is willingly given, an officer has free reign to look for just about anything. Furthermore, whatever is found of an illegal nature may be used against the owner of an individual vehicle or property.
To Carry or Not to Carry?
So what weapons, if any, can law-abiding citizens legally carry to protect themselves while engaging in RV-related activities? And how can they avoid running afoul of the law?
Here are a few basic tips to consider regarding the often-arcane jumble of laws affecting such devices:
1. Whenever possible or practical, check with state, county or city law enforcement agencies in areas you plan to frequent regarding the carrying, storage and concealment of such items.
2. All guns carried in or near the driver’s compartment of a mobile vehicle (without a CCW permit) should be kept unloaded. Store ammunition in separate areas removed from the weapon.
3. Keep pertinent licenses and/or permits for firearms, Tasers, stun guns and protective sprays, as well as a current list of all of the firearms that you own, handy at all times.
4. Do not voluntarily consent to a search of your person, RV or motor vehicle unless you are fully prepared to answer for whatever is found. If an officer requests permission, it is well within your legal rights to respectfully say no.
We all wish to demonstrate what good citizens we are, and don’t want an officer thinking we have something to hide that might make things worse. Nonetheless, you are never obligated to submit to a search upon mere request alone.
On the other hand, don’t ever stand in the way of a law enforcement official engaged in a search. Even if you think it is inappropriate, illegal and/or done without your permission, the place to sort out the legality of such actions is in front of a judge in the calmness and quiet of a courtroom.
Furthermore, your resistance or interference could make a difficult situation even worse by adding charges of “delaying an officer in pursuit of his or her duties.” Even if the search is deemed unlawful at a later date, you could still be held to answer for interfering.
5. Don’t create situations for yourself with actions such as flashing (brandishing) firearms/weapons in public, or bragging about how well-armed you are. False bravado such as this might just give an officer reasonable cause to obtain a search warrant for your personal vehicle and belongings.
6. Another item to consider: Law enforcement officers are frequently shot or attacked with their own weapons; and most are highly trained. Before arming yourself, make sure you are up to the task. It’s a tough call.
7. Situations warranting the use of a firearm or other defensive weapons are extremely rare. If you make the decision to either carry or ultimately use such devices, a variety of less than desirable, and sometimes unintended, consequences can befall you. These may include your own arrest on criminal charges or civil lawsuits.
If you choose to carry and store firearms or other weapons for personal protection in your vehicle or RV, do your planning and research of relevant laws well ahead of time. Do not rely on pleading “ignorance of the law” if you get caught; this usually won’t work.
What to carry and if to carry are questions that can only be answered by you, after much research and deliberation. Violating weapons laws far from home and in unfamiliar surroundings can turn some of the best years of your life into a very unpleasant experience.
The best starting points in researching the legality of carrying firearms, Tasers, stun guns and chemical sprays can often be found on the Internet. However, these sites should be used for research purposes only, and may not always interpret actual laws correctly. From there, it is then up to you to make sure that information is correct by contacting appropriate local law enforcement agencies where you reside or expect to travel.
Chuck Campbell served 31 years as a sworn member of a state law enforcement agency before retiring. He has spent the last 16 years as an RV and automotive journalist, and is a former consulting editor of MotorHome.
Additional Resources: For a handy guide to the various firearms laws and how they vary, see the 2011 Traveler’s Guide to the Firearm Laws of the 50 States. The author, attorney
J. Scott Kappas, uses case law and statutory authority to render plain
English advice as to how a traveler should carry firearms while visiting
the many states of our great nation.