Air Neglect

What's wrong with trained pilots having guns?

By Dave Kopel & David Petteys

National Review Online. July 2, 2003, 10:45 a.m. More by Kopel on armed pilots.

In the new Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the young wizarding students are frustrated by a "Defense Against the Dark Arts" teacher who resolutely refuses to teach the students how to protect themselves. The teacher, Deloris Umbridge, is a government bureaucrat, and she considers it better that innocents be murdered by the Death Eaters than for people outside the government to be able to fight back. Unfortunately, our real-world Transportation Security Administration might as well be run by Deloris Umbridge. By sabotaging the armed-pilots program, the Bush TSA is resolutely continuing to undermine the will of the American people and the express determination of the United States Congress.

Last month, the TSA fired Willie Ellison, who had been the head of the TSA firearms training academy. Ellison was strongly praised by the first class of 44 pilots which recently graduated from the program. According USA Today(June 6), Ellison was fired for "unacceptable performance and conduct."

What was Ellison's "unacceptable" conduct? He held a dinner for the first class of graduates, gave them baseball caps with the program logo, and asked for course evaluations.

Does firing a teacher for conduct like this really sound like the TSA is interested in high-quality teaching? Or is the TSA bureaucracy, like Deloris Umbridge, so opposed to defensive training that trivial bureaucratic pretexts are used to get rid of effective teachers?

The TSA's hostility to armed pilots is not confined to the firing of Ellison, for which House Aviation Subcommittee Chair John Mica (R., Fla.) has promised an investigation.

No sooner had the first class of armed pilots graduated from the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, than the TSA announced the program would be relocated to Artesia, New Mexico. Experienced instructors in Georgia have the option of quitting their jobs, or moving their families to a remote town which is 186 miles by car from Lubbock, Texas, the nearest major city.

Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, who represents a very left-wing district including Eugene, home of the University of Oregon, rarely can be found on the same side of an issue as John Mica. DeFazio is a fervent gun control advocate, who introduced nine gun control bills within three days after a school shooting in his district. Yet DeFazio, who is the ranking Democrat on the Aviation Subcommittee, denounced the closing of the Georgia training program as "just another attempt to disrupt the program at the behest of the airlines who have always opposed arming pilots" (USA Today, June 6).

Last fall, Congress rejected administration proposals for a small "pilot" program for airline defense. Instead, Congress enacted broad legislation for widespread arming of pilots. But the TSA's new Federal Flight Deck Officers (FFDO) program appears designed to discourage pilots from being able to protect their plane and passengers.

The TSA demands exhaustive background investigations for any pilots who wants to be armed: comprehensive disclosure of every address, interviews with past and present neighbors, friends, coworkers, and more. Naturally, such processing is extremely expensive. The high cost of such investigations enables TSA to severely limit the number armed pilots, and to add long delays in processing.

The next obstacle is the screening. The TSA subjects each victim (Oh, sorry! FFDO candidate) to intrusive, probing and far-reaching psychological evaluations. Now if we trust an individual with the good judgment to fly a $100 million aircraft with the lives of 400 individuals in his hands, why is it suddenly necessary to give him the psychological fifth degree because he would have a handgun?

Every pilot pursues his career at the pleasure of the federal government. And if a bureaucracy doesn't like a pilot's answers or behavior in one of these intrusive evaluations, the bureaucrats might decide that not only is the pilot not fit to carry a firearm, but he might also not be allowed to hold an Air Transport Pilot's license as well. The risk that a government psychologist might destroy a pilot's ability to earn a living because he thinks the pilot has unresolved conflict with her cousin will discourage many conscientious and able pilots from applying.

Although pilots would technically be designated as federal law enforcement officers, they would not be authorized carry their guns in ordinary holsters as every other law enforcement officer does, but only in special locked boxes to be kept in the cockpit during flight. Accordingly, the pilots would not be faced with the myriad of situations in which a federal law enforcement officer with emotional problems might an inappropriate decision about defensive gun use-such as when an undercover officer is challenged to a fight in a seedy bar.

Thus, the psychological screening used on FBI agents is unnecessary for airline pilots, and is silly in light of the fact that every pilot already controls a weapon thousands of times more powerful than a handgun.

The next obstacle is the training. Even though there are over 66,000 members of the Airline Pilots Association, the TSA plans to train the FFDO's 48 pilots at a time at a budgeted cost of $12,000 a person.

The TSA complains that it doesn't have enough money for FFDO, and announced that once the first class of 48 pilots were trained, there would not be enough money to continue the program. Congress responded with an appropriations bill ordering TSA to spend eight million dollars of existing TSA funds on armed pilot training. Having trained one class in April, the TSA will start another class in July. Plainly this is a pace for the proposed small program which Congress rejected, rather than the large program which Congress enacted.

TSA is willfully blind to an option which could produce thousands of well-trained pilots within a few weeks: private firearms academies. These academies offer excellent, intensive training in defensive handgun for a cost of about two thousand dollars or less. Plenty of these classes are six days long, like the federal class.

Some private academies, such as Front Sight Training Academy in Nevada, have patriotically offered to train pilots for free. For academies without pilot scholarships, pilots could be given the option of paying for the course themselves, rather than waiting for TSA to get around to providing a free federal course, at some indefinite date in the future.

Gary Marbut, head of the Montana State Shooting Association, has followed TSA official procedures to submit an offer to train 1,200 pilots for a cost of $800 each. The detailed application was strongly supported by Montana senator Conrad Burns. Marbut's application was submitted last November, on the day the President signed the Homeland Security Act. Over half a year later, nobody at the TSA will even explain what happened to Marbut's proposal, Marbut says.

It should be remembered that an armed pilot resisting a hijacking faces a much simpler scenario than a typical defensive shooting by an FBI agent, a police officer, or a citizen with a concealed handgun permit. These latter three must be prepared for surprise attacks, and for the possibility of using firearms in any of the hundreds of places where a person might be during the course of a day. Law-enforcement officers must confront the additional difficulty of being forced to intervene in situations (such as domestic disturbance) in which it may not be immediately clear who is the aggressor and who is the victim.

In contrast, the armed pilots would only use firearms in a place they know extremely well: their own cockpit. Because cockpit doors are now secure and barricaded, and because of enhanced communication abilities between the cabin stewardesses (or stewards) and the cockpit, pilots would likely have warning before a hijacker breached the cockpit door. The attacker would be a very few feet away-as opposed to attackers who might be many yards away in ordinary ground-based defensive gun use. Unlike in ground-based defensive gun use, the pilot would not have to worry about whether use of deadly force should be delayed in the hopes that lesser force or a warning might suffice; a hijacking scenario and cockpit invasion would by definition require use of deadly force.

In short, there is no good justification for TSA inventing a requirement for a $12,000 federal training course, and using this pretext as a choke point to prevent arming pilots.

While obstructing the Congressionally mandate for armed pilots, the TSA is announcing that it is thinking about allowing pilots and cabin stewards to carry stun guns. The administration floated this proposal in 2002, as attempt to defeat the armed pilots program, and Congress voted instead to give pilots real firearms, not stun guns. A stun gun is certainly better than nothing, but it's not nearly as effective as a firearm. For one thing, it can be defeated by thick clothing.

The core problem is the bureaucrats really do not want pilots to be armed. "I don't think we want to equip our pilots with firearms," said Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. Asked why, Ridge replied "Where would it end?" In other words, if we arm pilots, then we have to let other potential terror victims arms themselves, and that would be crazy! Actually, since 1989 Ridge's home state of Pennsylvania has allowed any law-abiding adult who wants to carry a concealed handgun for protection obtain a permit to do so. There is a background check requirement, but, unlike in many other states, no training requirement.

The law in Pennsylvania is working just fine. So fine, in fact, that when Ridge was governor, he signed legislation eliminating a loophole in the Pennsylvania carry law which had prevented Philadelphia residents from obtaining permits. So if concealed handguns work on the mean streets of Philadelphia, with no training requirement, what's wrong with trained pilots having guns?

Unfortunately, the TSA appears to be full of old Secret Service bureaucrats who think like Ridge, and who can't stand of the idea of gun carrying by people who don't work for the government.

In dealings with Saudi Arabia, the Bush administration is continuing the failed policies of the past, by placing the short-term interests of American corporations ahead of the long-term need to remove a regime which continues to allow that nation's wealth to finance international terror. The Bush administration is likewise placing the desires of big corporations, the airline companies, ahead of the safety of airline passengers and crews.

Apparently the airline executives would rather risk another 9/11 than take the (tiny) chance that an armed pilot might use his gun illegally, and the airline might be sued. While the Bush administration adopted this corporate view, the American people and the Congress have taken just the opposite position. And it is the position of the American people which Congress enacted as the law of the land.

Meanwhile, Senators Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) and Jim Bunning (R., Ky.) are working to close another dangerous loophole in our nation's gun laws. Last fall's Arming Pilots Against Terrorism and Cabin Defense Act did not include provisions for arming cargo pilots. Under existing law, the executive branch could allow these pilots to be armed tomorrow, but of course has failed to do so. The Boxer-Bunning S. 516 would close the loophole, and include cargo pilots in the Federal Flight Deck Officers program. In the House, H.R. 1049 by Rep. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.) would do the same thing.

As Sen. Boxer points out, a hijacked cargo plane can damage a ground target, such as a nuclear power plant, just as severely as a commercial airliner. Current security of cargo planes is very poor. Cockpit doors are not reinforced, and it is easy for unauthorized persons to sneak onto the tarmac and get on a plane. In late 2002, a mentally deranged woman walked into the cockpit of a cargo plane in Fargo, and asked to be flown to California. Sen. Boxer warns, "If someone with diminished capacity can do this, think what terrorists might do."

On June 12, the full U.S. Senate voted to add the Bunning-Boxer amendment to the reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration. The cargo companies, such as FedEx, do not want cargo pilots to be allowed to carry firearms, or even allowed to carry stun guns.

Clearly it will take much more work by Congress and the public to overcome the Bush/bureaucrat/big-business alliance against sensible, bipartisan policies for homeland security. In the meantime, American planes, except for the tiny fraction carrying federal air marshals, remain undefended against al Qaeda's Death Eaters.

Dave Kopel is a contributing editor of NRO. Captain David Petteys is a retired United Airlines pilot, Marine helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War, and author of Marine Helo.

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