Commentary

Invitation to Terror: This Plane Is a Gun-Free Zone

Imagine that you are a terrorist selecting one of two airlines as your next victim. The first airline boasts in its ads, “Our Planes Are Gun-Free Zones.” The second says that “One or More Employees Will Be Armed on Every Flight.” Not much question which one you’d fly. Now picture yourself as a safety-conscious passenger. Still not much question, but the choice won’t be the same. That’s the case in a nutshell for armed sky marshals, and perhaps armed pilots, flight attendants, even selected passengers.

Let’s start with sky marshals. That idea seems like a no-brainer. Indeed, it’s now being implemented. But the problem is cost. One marshal per daily flight would require 35,000 officers — more than twice the number employed by the FBI, Secret Service, and U.S. Marshals combined. Yes, a marshal might be able to average 3 to 4 flights each day. Then again, most proposals call for more than one marshal per flight. Put it all together and we’re talking about roughly 14,000 new employees, salaried at $70,000 and up per year, plus the cost of training. That’s well over a billion dollars annually.

What about pilots? “These men and women operate $100 million pieces of equipment. They can sure learn to operate a .38 snub-nose if they want to,” said aviation consultant Michael Boyd. The Air Line Pilots Association, with overwhelming support from its members, wants armed pilots in cockpits. “Under the old model of hijackings,” said a union spokesman, the “strategy was to accommodate, negotiate and do not escalate. But that was before. The cockpit has to be defended at all costs.” An armed pilots program would be strictly voluntary. It would require extensive background screening and psychological testing, as well as classroom and practical training, roughly equivalent to what sky marshals would receive. Sens. Bob Smith (R-NH) and Conrad Burns (R-MT) have taken the first step. Their amendment to the Aviation Security Act, S. 1447, would allow — not
require — properly trained commercial pilots, co-pilots, and flight engineers to carry firearms.

Armed flight attendants present a different set of problems. Israel’s El Al airline — the world’s safest — has armed both its pilots and its flight attendants. Still, there is legitimate concern that a flight attendant could easily be overpowered by terrorists to get his or her gun. One solution is to hide the weapon, perhaps keep it under lock. But that wouldn ‘t frustrate a terrorist if he knew that the attendant had access to the weapon. A better solution — although costly and not yet technologically feasible — is to provide attendants with “smart guns,” which are programmed so they can be fired only by authorized persons. For now, attendants should be limited to weapons that are temporarily debilitating, but inflict no longer-term injury.

Finally, there’s the more radical notion that selected passengers should be armed. Radical or not, the idea deserves to be considered. Risks can be mitigated. First, insist that the passenger have a concealed gun permit and pass a background check. Second, require that he be specifically trained in the use of firearms on an airplane. Third, limit the passenger to a gun and ammunition supplied by the airline. Special bullets are available that are destructive to human tissue but come apart at first impact. That would eliminate, or at least minimize, the likelihood that a bullet could penetrate the fuselage.

Presently in the United States, there are 600,000 active state and local law enforcement officers, who are now forbidden to carry guns on planes. Certified law enforcement personnel, maybe even firefighters and emergency medical technicians, when traveling as ordinary passengers, could register voluntarily and confidentially with the airlines to provide assistance in the event of an emergency. That’s the proposal put forward by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) in his “Volunteers for Safe Skies Act.” Why not expand on that proposal by allowing those persons, if properly trained, to carry concealed guns?

The broader principle is this: On September 11, the United States government failed at the single most important function that it has been entrusted to perform — the protection of American citizens against foreign aggression. If we demand too much from government, it’s partly because the need for the state to defend us increases in proportion to our inability to defend ourselves. That’s why law-abiding inner city residents, many of whom have been disarmed by gun control, beg for police protection despite the terrible violations of civil liberties that such protection entails — like curfews, anti-loitering laws, and civil asset forfeiture. We must not allow our anti-gun paranoia to push us toward a police state.

Armed civilians can deter crime. Armed civilians can mean safer planes, shopping malls, schools, and other public places. Law-enforcement officers can’t be everywhere, but an armed, trained citizenry can be.

Robert A. Levy is senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute.