- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 22, 2002

The federal government has decided against allowing commercial airline pilots to carry firearms as a last-ditch means of defense against would-be hijackers. The news came yesterday at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing. What are they afraid of?

"Pilots need to concentrate on flying the plane," said John Magaw, undersecretary of transportation for security. So, instead, the federal government has decided to place its faith (and the lives of airline passengers) in the hands of specially trained air marshals. "These marshals are trained not only in the use of weapons but all the things that build up to that," Mr. Magaw said. "They have to practice all of these things in a tight aircraft… . We don't want them shooting the firearm with the potential of bringing that airplane down" a reference to the possibility of explosive decompression of the cabin at high altitude.

But there are several practical objections to the government's approach. In the first place, there is simply no current or envisioned plan that would place an air marshal on each and every commercial flight or even anything approaching a majority of them. Therefore, it will be a roll of the dice with the odds in a would-be terrorist's favor whether any given flight will have an air marshal on board. Second is the objection to the government's straw man regarding explosive decompression. Low-velocity ammunition is readily available, making that scenario next to impossible. Furthermore, if would-be terrorists hijack an airplane with the intent of repeating September 11, "bringing that airplane down" becomes a moot consideration. A bullet may be the only thing, in fact, that prevents the airplane from being brought down.

Given that many, perhaps a majority, of major commercial airline pilots have military experience and are already familiar with the safe handling and use of firearms and leaving aside the fact that passengers are already entrusting these highly skilled professionals with their lives the moment they come on board allowing pilots to carry weapons or keep them in the cockpit seems entirely reasonable. Most pilots agree, as several polls have confirmed. Once airborne, there's no way to dial 911 no means of calling in the cavalry. An armed pilot capable of defending himself and his aircraft against a fanatical terrorist could very easily mean the difference between life and death, not just for those on the aircraft, but for the many on the ground who could find themselves the target of a flying bomb.

Sen. Conrad Burns, Montana Republican, urged Mr. Magaw to reconsider his decision. "Those who want to be armed will put themselves through the same training the air marshals go through," he said. It's difficult to imagine why the government would oppose this common-sense idea unless it's out of politically correct fear of upsetting the gun-control lobby.


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