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Don't go arming everyone

The Sanford, Fla., police chief is right in saying there's no reason for neighborhood watch volunteers to be armed.

November 06, 2013|By The Times Editorial Board
  • On Monday, the union representing 45,000 federal security agents called for the creation of a class of armed TSA officers with law enforcement training and the authority to arrest people.
On Monday, the union representing 45,000 federal security agents called… (Kevork Djansezian / Getty…)

When new Police Chief Cecil Smith arrived in Sanford, Fla., in April, he suspended the city's neighborhood watch program — the one under whose auspices George Zimmerman had patrolled the streets until he fatally shot unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Now Smith is restarting the program, but the police department says it will exercise more control over volunteers, including doing background checks and asking them not to carry guns. "We just don't see the need for anybody to be armed," Smith told the Associated Press.

Smith has chosen to ask the volunteers rather than order them, perhaps because Florida law allows citizens to carry concealed weapons if they're properly permitted, as Zimmerman was. We wish he had gone further and told the volunteers that no one participating in the neighborhood watch program would be allowed to carry a gun — and that if they did they would be removed from the program.

No doubt Zimmerman was an aberration in the world of neighborhood watch volunteers: a pistol-packing cowboy who ignored advice from a 911 operator not to pursue Martin. But even if most volunteers are more responsible than Zimmerman, why do they need guns?

Some of Smith's critics argue that a neighborhood watch volunteer has as much right to walk down the street carrying a concealed weapon as anyone else. Indeed, the volunteer has more reason, they say, because he or she is more likely to end up in a dangerous situation.

But that's exactly why it's a bad idea. Law enforcement officials uniformly stress that the job of neighborhood watch volunteers is to observe and report what they see, not to confront or to police. What volunteers need are cellphones (to call the police) and flashlights.

In Los Angeles, neighborhood watches are coordinated and overseen by local police officers. It's extraordinarily rare for civilians to get concealed weapons permits in Los Angeles, so volunteers almost never carry guns. That's how it should be.


And here's another group of civilians who should not be armed on duty: Transportation Security Administration officers. The fatal shooting of a TSA officer at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday morning was a horrific and tragic incident. But arming the legions of TSA agents who screen passengers and their luggage on their way into airports is not the way to prevent further acts of violence, whether by terrorists or by deranged gunmen.

Despite their titles, uniforms and badges, and the no-nonsense attitude that seems to suggest they would wrestle us to the ground if we disobeyed them, TSA agents are not law enforcement officers. They carry out the thankless task of herding through the airport millions of passengers, many of them moody and irritated by the tedious security checks. Designating the agents as “officers” and giving them badges was an attempt to boost morale and professionalize the workforce — and perhaps persuade passengers to treat them with some respect.

But the proposal to create a class of armed TSA officers (put forward by the union that represents them) makes little sense. TSA agents work in congested, high-stress areas; they are not trained as law enforcement officers. What's more, there's no particular reason to believe that Friday's shooting would have been avoided if the TSA agent who was killed had been armed with a gun. And besides, airports already have armed police officers on site providing security.

Americans have to recognize that it is not practical, nor is it necessarily desirable, to create an armed force to protect every single airport, train station, shopping center and school in the country from random shootings by mentally ill gunmen. TSA officers already have a consuming and crucial job screening passengers and their luggage for hidden weapons. Let them concentrate on that.

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