- The Washington Times - Friday, June 21, 2002

Not all pilots would be armed under the terms of a compromise proposal offered by House Democrats and Republicans on Tuesday, but at least 250 of them would be. That, in combination with the presence of armed federal air marshals, might give would-be terrorists a case of the second thoughts. The greater the likelihood of encountering an air crew capable of defending itself and its passengers, the less likely that an attempt will be made to commandeer the plane. Terrorist thugs almost by definition choose "soft" targets and avoid places where people are more likely to put up a fight.

The compromise proposal, backed by Democratic Rep. James L. Oberstar of Minnesota and Republican Rep. John L. Mica of Florida among others, is tentatively scheduled for a full committee vote on June 26. If passed, the new law would create a two-year "experimental period" under which 250 pilots who have been through a training program devoted to the safe handling of weapons, anti-terrorism tactics and so on would be permitted to carry handguns and have them at the ready in the cockpit in the event the worst happens. The program also calls for an expansion of the number of armed pilots to 1,400 by the end of the two-year period.

While the idea of arming commercial airline pilots continues to face resistance in the Senate as well as from, of all places, the Bush administration itself this compromise deserves support. This isn't about wantonly tossing guns at pilots and wishing them well; it's about further careful screening and training of already well-trained and screened professionals who may be the last line of defense at 30,000 feet. Many pilots previously served in the military and are already quite familiar with the safe, effective use of handguns. Most want to be allowed access to perhaps the best and only means of self-defense against terrorists.

It's worth pointing out that, until fairly recently, pilots were in fact allowed to carry firearms aboard their airplanes and did so with a perfect safety record. This was the case for many decades, and no one had a problem with it until the early 1980s, when anti-gun fervor resulted in a change in policy that prohibited guns in the cockpit leaving passengers and crew virtually defenseless and arguably making the horrors of September 11 much easier to plan and execute. Had the pilots of those doomed planes been armed, it is very possible the attacks could have been thwarted or the damage minimized. The World Trade Center might still be standing.

Heightened security and reinforced cockpit doors are great ideas, but are inadequate by themselves. And while the air-marshal idea is wonderful, there simply aren't enough of them to provide the kind of blanket coverage that's needed for the program to be effective. Those pilots who prefer not to be armed would not be required to have guns under the terms of the proposal. But the open knowledge that many pilots have the means to defend themselves will certainly have a deterrent effect. Messrs. Oberstar and Mica's proposal is an eminently reasonable one that deserves the support of Congress and the Bush administration.

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