Should Pilots Carry Handguns?
BY RICH LOWRY
A pilot flying a 747 is in control of 400,000 pounds of metal, 57,285 gallons of jet fuel and the lives of roughly 400 passengers. You would think he could be trusted with a handgun.
Not according to Undersecretary of Transportation for Security John Magaw, who recently announced that the Bush administration opposes arming pilots, on the theory that pilots are for flying, not defending, airplanes.
Well, yes. And commercial airliners are for moving cranky business travelers and fidgety children from one destination to another. But that didn't stop 19 hijackers from slamming them into buildings instead.
The question is how to confront any future, similarly extreme crisis on an airplane.
Magaw's message to pilots — befitting anyone who works for the terminally unimaginative Transportation Secretary Norm Minetta — is a feeble: "Trust us."
Trust in our security screeners, who routinely fail to detect smuggled weapons in tests, but are experts at patting down elderly women.
Trust in our new Transportation Security Administration, which is straining to meet a deadline for screening checked bags, but is proving adept at overspending (the security guards who will replace National Guardsmen at airport checkpoints will be paid $92,000 a year).
Trust, above all, in our air marshals.
The airline security bill passed last year mandates two armed air marshals on every high-risk flight; a tall order that, even if fulfilled, will leave many flights uncovered.
Consider: There are 35,000 flights in the United States a day. To put two air marshals on each one — given downtime, the vagaries of travel, etc. — would probably require more than 100,000 marshals.
That would make this force almost as large as the U.S. Marine Corps. Maybe if President Bush is having trouble scraping together the military resources to invade Iraq, he can send in the air marshals instead.
At the moment, however, many pilots say they have never had an air marshal on one of their flights, and estimates peg the current coverage at roughly 5 percent of all flights.
The administration's support for air marshals raises the question: If the marshal anonymously sitting in 15C can have a gun, why not the pilot in the cockpit?
It's not a new idea. Back when commercial flights carried U.S. mail, pilots were armed. It wasn't until 1987 that the Federal Aviation Administration formally banned the practice.
The idea now is popular with pilots, roughly 60 percent of whom are former military officers and don't want to be unarmed in the face of a terrorist assault.
Pilots also know that they can't be neatly hidden away behind reinforced cockpit doors, since they inevitably need to leave the cockpit (for bathroom breaks, to eyeball the engines and the wings, etc.).
The airlines have been the chief force lobbying the Bush administration against arming pilots, mostly because they don't want to deal with the liability risk.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., would eliminate this problem by deputizing armed pilots as federal marshals, who have sovereign immunity.
Smith's bill requires the reluctant Transportation Security Administration to train pilots in the use of firearms, and the airlines to allow the trained pilots to keep a gun in the cockpit.
It is a sign of the appeal of the proposal that even liberal California Sen. Barbara Boxer has spoken favorably of it.
Yes, firing a gun in a plane would be risky. But it would only happen in the most extreme circumstances.
Low-velocity and fragmenting bullets would reduce the danger of piercing the shell of the plane. And Boeing has said that a bullet hole in a plane would not cause a catastrophic depressurizing.
What would certainly cause a crash is the Bush administration's last-ditch plan for dealing with a hijacked airliner: dispatching an F-16 to shoot it down.
In the cause of forestalling a resort to that final option, many passengers would probably be glad to have their pilots armed with shotguns, or even small howitzers.
© Rich Lowry
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.