Give Pilots Guns

Airlines are opposed to arming pilots because they are concerned about their liability if anyone but a terrorist is shot by a pilot. They should be opposed, because sooner or later someone will be shot, and the likelihood of it being a terrorist is remote.

The fact of the matter is that only a skilled marksman can hit a moving target with a handgun in a combat situation. After fielding calls on the issue of arming pilots on several radio call-in shows over the past few days, I am convinced that too many of my fellow Americans are misinformed about the firearm skills learned in the military by our pilots. Nor are pilots likely to pick up those skills without repeated and dedicated professional training and practice. So if I were running an air carrier, I would be worried about the proposals now coming out of Congress to let pilots who want to carry guns do so. On the other hand, if hijackers start kicking in the cockpit door, why not let the pilots shoot them, if they can? And if they miss and hit an innocent party, or worse cause the plane to go down, well, an act of Congress can avoid any liability for the air carrier while allowing a risk many Americans seem willing to take.

An angry, frustrated, and often frightened American public needs something to believe in when it comes to aviation security, and to date our government has failed to provide it. When I suggested that armed pilots be restricted to only carrying arms in the cockpit, callers repeatedly told me that they trusted their pilots with their lives at 39,000 feet, and they also trusted them to decide where and when to use a firearm. When I suggested that the risk of losing a plane was greatly increased if the pilot opened the cockpit door to subdue someone committing a criminal act, they told me that if it means saving a life in the cabin, the risk was worth it. And when I suggested that a pilot up against an unknown number of assailants, even with a gun, was likely to lose both his or her life and the plane, I was told that it was better to take that chance then be brought down by one of our own fighter planes. Not a single caller opposed guns for pilots or supported restricting their use to the cabin.

My fellow Americans are fed up with the endless “media ops” that politicians and “aviation experts” (me included) have been using to support or attack the aviation security theory-of-the-day. What they want to hear about is a substantive program to secure our airports. Sixty percent of our “newly” trained airport screeners are comprised of old airport screeners carried over from some of the same companies protecting us on 9/11. The bold promises that every airport in America would have a CTX baggage-scanning machine by year’s end has given way to the threat that, at 80 airports, scanning will only be done by physically opening all of the checked bags — without the owners even being present. At the rest of the airports, a combination of CTX and trace detectors will be used with as many as half of all checked bags being physically opened.

While Congress debates the issue of profiling for high-risk passengers, the rest of us still must break the half-inch nail files off our nail clippers to carry them on board; or sit shoeless in a folding chair while our shoes are inspected for bombs that most screeners still can’t identify; or wait on a seemingly endless line to be prodded, x-rayed and, all too often, groped by a sullen screener from whom there is not an ounce of civility.

Sooner or later, the government may get our airport security program right. We may begin to:

  • Call upon the skills of security professionals to actually bring about positive change at the airports.
  • Use some of hundreds of thousands of former law enforcement personnel anxious to take over the airport screening duties.
  • Get rid of the convicted felons and illegal aliens that are weekly being discovered working at airports by the Justice Department.
  • Secure cockpit doors, install closed circuit television in aircraft cabins, and start employing biometrics and other high-tech security systems to reduce the threat to aircraft, baggage and cargo from planted explosives and weapons.
  • In short, the government might even spend some of the original $2 billion budget and the $4 billion supplementary appropriation on real security rather than on $100 million training programs to train trainers to train screeners who in many cases are not trainable.

In the meantime, give pilots guns. Train them how to use them. Develop sane rules of engagement for them. We Americans need to see something happen in airport security with which we can identify.

After all is said and done, I guess I agree with those folks who called in from Missouri, California, Florida and Washington, D.C. to say, “We trust pilots to fly our families around the world seven miles above the ground and at over 600 miles an hour, we can trust them to do the right thing with a handgun.” At the moment, our pilots and cabin crews are all we can trust.

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