On arming pilots

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On arming pilots

The arming of American commercial pilots has an interesting history. An FAA rule was adopted in the early 1960s to allow pilots to carry guns on planes. The rule required airlines to apply to the agency for their pilots to carry guns in cockpits and for the airlines to put pilots through an agency approved firearms training course. No airline ever applied, and the rule was dropped in July 2001.

Pilots seem to be generally in favor of the option to have guns available. (There were at least two incidents in which armed pilots prevented hijackings.) Many are ex-military and have some familiarity with guns, and feel that if they are responsible enough to be entrusted with responsibility for the plane and its passengers, they are responsible enough to operate a gun.

Many appear to believe that, as happens with guns in the home, the mere possibility of the presence of a gun convinces bad people to look for some other way to cause trouble. They also know that if they were to deal with a problem, rather than flying the plane (although the co-pilot can fly), the plane isn’t going to fall out of the sky. Even if they were to shoot a hole in the plane it still wouldn’t fall out of the sky and the passengers won’t be sucked out or subjected to catastrophic turbulence.

Airlines are not crazy about the idea of pilots carrying guns, because if one of their employees were to shoot a non-terrorist, the airline would face great liability. If we go to the official national fallback plan, where the plane is shot out of the air by an F16, the liability of the airline is substantially less.

While the issue of liability could undoubtedly be addressed through legislation, it is unlikely that the airlines will ever be supporters of this idea. For those involved with Air Marshals, having armed people on board is counter-productive on a turf basis. If you can field 90,000 Air Marshals you have a very significant agency with a very significant budget, and it is potentially destructive to have your headcount and budget eaten away by other agencies, pilots, or police officers.

Those who are against civilian ownership of guns in general are, well, against civilian ownership of guns in general, and feel that the presence of guns in the hands of anyone other than the government is simply wrong. Those who are pro-gun feel that the presence of guns on planes increases the uncertainty of potential hijackers, inducing them to do something else. This group generally feels that pilots should be armed if they so choose, and that police officers should be allowed to carry their guns onboard. While some firearms instructors question the wisdom of this, noting that the average department has less than four hours of firearms training per year, this rather misses the point. The intention is not to have a gunfight; it is to make the target undesirable for criminals.

In fact, the issue is rather moot. We are clearly in no more danger today than we were on September 10th, and our needs did not mysteriously change on the 11th. If anything, the risk of hijacking has lessened, as passengers no longer believe that, when facing danger, they should sit quietly without resisting. Nobody, armed or unarmed, is likely to be able to take over an American flagship in the foreseeable future. We could easily close down all inspection stations and allow anyone with a legally-owned gun, and with all the knives they usually carry, to get on planes with no decrease in safety, but probably without much increase in air safety, either.

Current air security, which appears to have been designed to give the impression of doing something, rather than to actually improve security, has more flaws than virtues. Indeed, airport heads recently went on record that bomb-testing machinery will be expensive, will soon be outdated, work poorly, and create dangerous congestion. A serious argument can be made that shutting down inspection stations would save billions in cost and would markedly speed up travel; and that many who have chosen to drive rather than fly might return to air travel, thus stemming the increasing number of travel deaths we anticipate coming from increased driving. But don’t count on this happening soon.

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