- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 7, 2002

The Bush administration appears to be finally coming around to the idea of allowing commercial airline pilots access to firearms in the cockpit. According to an Associated Press report late Wednesday, the administration is "planning a small-scale test program of arming commercial pilots, reversing its previous opposition to guns in the cockpit."

The AP quoted an unidentified Bush administration official as saying the policy change would likely be made official soon. It also said the administration's proposal would be similar to the compromise measure offered this summer in Congress, which would have allowed about 2 percent of all commercial pilots to be armed.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, the Senate voted 87-6 in favor of an amendment to the pending Homeland Security Department legislation that would allow guns in commercial airplane cockpits and would set up a training program for pilots, to be implemented by the Transportation Security Administration. The pilots themselves, as well as their unions (to say nothing of the flying public) all support the idea by wide margins, too.

As has been pointed out on this page and elsewhere, you won't get a response from 911 at 30,000 feet. In the event a would-be terrorist slips through security — a distinct possibility, as recent breaches have made all too clear — the only thing standing between another potential disaster and getting safely back on the ground is the ability of the flight crew to defend itself.

Reinforced cockpit doors are great, but arming pilots is the best way to level the playing field. Without armed pilots, an armed thug stands a far greater chance of getting through security and using his weapon to seize control of the aircraft. Without comparable means of fighting back, the crew and all aboard are would be at the mercy of the hijacker. Given the reality that many pilots are former military personnel and have already had extensive screening and training, arming them is just common sense.

"The use of firearms aboard a U.S. aircraft must be limited to those thoroughly trained members of law enforcement," Transportation Undersecretary John Magaw, a staunch foe of arming pilots, said shortly before he was fired by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. The problem is that there simply aren't enough "trained members of law enforcement" — that is, federal sky marshals — to handle the job. Indeed, a minor fiasco erupted a few weeks ago, when it was revealed that rushed training and dumbed-down standards were allowing people who couldn't shoot straight to be considered as potential sky marshals. It is far better and far more efficient to allow U.S. commercial pilots, already entrusted with our lives the moment those wheels leave the ground, to have access to the means of defending themselves and us.

The failure of the federal government to hire an adequate number of sky marshals has persuaded even the very liberal Sen. Barbara Boxer of California to support arming pilots. "It is a matter of life and death," she says on her Web site. "If a plane is considered under the control of hijackers, it will be shot down by our military. Imagine how the survivors of all those passengers would feel if we failed to allow pilots to have guns to defend the plane and an American flight was brought down by the American military."

It's now up to the administration to follow through on the sensible action taken by the Senate on Thursday.

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