Security in the Cockpit

The fact that 1 out of 4 attempts to sneak a weapon through airport security is still successful has helped revive the idea of letting pilots carry guns.

The GOP-run House passed a bill this month authorizing it, even though the White House has been against it. Now Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, and others, are starting to backpedal on the issue. No wonder. Arming pilots is an idea supported by the National Rifle Association.

The NRA gave a whopping $1.2 million to candidates and parties in support of gun rights (93 percent to Republicans) in the last election. This strong lobby says it plans to talk to every senator about supporting the bill to arm pilots, and that it will keep close track of the vote on the issue.

In NRA logic, a pilot is just another member of the "militia" mentioned in the Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to bear arms. The NRA, and other supporters of the bill, can't be satisfied with the better idea of using trained air marshals to act as deterrents. Yes, that extra manpower would cost more, but incognito marshals would be better shots and less likely to harm passengers.

And with new safety measures in place next year – better screening of passengers and baggage, for instance, and reinforced cockpit doors – would-be terrorists will think twice about repeating Sept. 11. Al Qaeda, the main threat, has probably already moved on to plans not involving planes.

A poll conducted by the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents 66,000 pilots, found that 73 percent of its members favored guns in cockpits. That's despite the group's worry that many pilots wouldn't take the lengthy gun training.

A pilot's job is to fly, not be a deputy Wyatt Earp protecting the cockpit in a packed fuselage. If pilots have guns, then why not bus drivers, school guards, and other people controlling large crowds?

Guns in the cockpit raise too many "what ifs." The Violence Policy Center notes that 21 percent of police officers killed with a handgun are shot with their own weapon. Two pilots were recently fired for being intoxicated just before they were about to fly. A would-be terrorist who knows a pilot has a gun may be tempted to somehow take it away. If a gun is fired in the cockpit, instrumentation could be damaged or destroyed and bring down the plane. (Airlines worry about their liability in such a situation.) Even Israel's airline, El Al, doesn't arm its pilots, and it's been very successful at preventing hijackings.

One alternative is nonlethal weapons such as stun guns or Spider-Man-type devices that shoot webs to entangle criminals. In the meantime, senators shouldn't be politically pistol-whipped into giving pilots guns.

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