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Congress Misses the Mark

September 15, 2002

Now that both houses of Congress have voted overwhelmingly to arm airline pilots, it's up to a conference committee--presumably unarmed--to decide whether this pell-mell, all-American airborne arms race measure goes to the president for approval. We suggest that discussions refocus on the merits of cockpit weapons, not their caliber.

In a singularly unattractive election year stampede, Congress members including California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein have caved in to the--presumably unarmed--pressures of pilots who would like guns in the cockpit as the last line of defense against terrorist hijackers. How about locking the reinforced cockpit door instead? And whatever happened to cockpit Tasers? Bearing batteries and wires isn't as Wild West as packing heat--but is considerably less lethal for all at 30,000 feet. Alas, the administration is muting its opposition to cockpit guns, leaning toward a pilot test of pilot guns.

Resolved, no one wants anything less than the safest airlines. We're already investing billions in airport security to keep weapons and bombs off planes. Is it worth $900 million more to establish training for any or all of the estimated 85,000 pilots to actually carry firearms onto these planes? Plus another $250 million annually to maintain the program? Pretty soon taxes on airline tickets will exceed the fares themselves. Cross-country round trip: $189, plus airport taxes, landing fee assessments, security enhancement costs, air marshal tips, fuel surtax, luggage inspection charges, metal detector tax, body-frisk fees, ammo allotments and your total will be $409.99. Plus a surchange for an e-ticket that saves the airlines labor, postage and paper.

True, most pilots, at least those not apprehended portaging cocktails to the cockpit, are skilled professionals--at flying. Flying by the seat of your pants in storms is one thing; launching a well-aimed bullet inside a pressurized aircraft is another. That's why we have metal detectors and air marshals--and need more. Even airplane owners and initially the pilots union opposed the plan.

The idea raises so many disturbing questions. Is having a pilot's license, a commercial job and volunteering to pack a piece sufficient qualification? What about background checks? Can pilots pack pistols after landing? What if hijackers seize a pilot's pistol?

And what's next in our society's impromptu arms race to increase security? Arm folks at the metal detectors? At ticket counters? How about arming bus drivers and schoolteachers? We could arm fans at pro football games too. (Oakland's already act armed.) We could have tailgate marksmanship parties and stop selling ammo after the third quarter to permit cleanup of shell casings and other debris.

Giving guns to airline pilots is an idea that should be shot down before takeoff.

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