What's wrong with trained pilots having guns?
Dave Kopel & David Petteys
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
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."
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Kopelis 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