Jon E. Dougherty is a Missouri-based political science major, author, writer and columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
The director for Homeland Security’s comment that it doesn’t “make sense” to allow commercial airline pilots to be armed appears to be at odds with the opinion of a majority of Americans and pilots’ groups.
Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge said yesterday if pilots were permitted to be armed, the trend would likely spread to other sectors of the travel industry – something he didn’t seem prepared to sanction.
“I don’t think we want to equip our pilots with firearms,” Ridge said. “That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.” Asked why, Ridge replied, “Where would it end?”
White House officials, according to USA Today, say they believe Ridge’s comments reflect President Bush’s point of view, though Bush has never publicly commented on the issue.
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, a Cabinet-level holdover from the Clinton administration – which was hostile to gun rights – told the Los Angeles Times Saturday that he, too, didn’t think pilots should be armed.
John McGaw, head of the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, will make the final decision whether to allow pilots to be armed, but probably not soon, according to spokesman Jim Mitchell.
Meanwhile, Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Transportation officials are sorting through comments sent by thousands of Americans who have spoken about whether pilots should be allowed to carry guns or other “less-than-lethal” weapons. And officials say most people seem to approve.
Kent Stevens, a spokesman for the FAA’s Air Carrier Operations division – which sought the public comments – told WorldNetDaily his agency has yet to sort through all 7,700-plus replies, but the “prevailing opinion” seems to favor arming pilots.
“It looks like the majority of folks want to see pilots armed with something, whether it’s less-than-lethal or lethal,” he said.
There “are all sorts of issues with that,” but most respondents said they’d “feel safer if pilots had some sort of deterrent,” he said.
Stevens said his office would eventually send recommendations based on responses to McGaw. “Whether we decide on lethal or less-than-lethal, or whatever, there are both positive and negative aspects.”
He said his agency has not received all the comments yet because mail was sent to be irradiated at a site in North Dakota due to the anthrax scare last fall. That has delayed the delivery of an untold number of public comments. The comment period ended Feb. 14.
Former FAA security chief Billy Vincent, in an interview with the National Rifle Association, said arming pilots was a long-overdue security measure that the federal government could both afford and implement immediately.
“I am continually amazed at our failure … to take the actions that we need to take to protect ourselves,” he said, adding that the “influence of money by the airlines” still plays a part in aviation policymaking, even after Sept. 11.
Vincent called the FAA’s commentary period “ludicrous,” and said the government should be operating under “emergency procedures” to implement rules permitting pilots to be armed.
“One pilot standing in the door defending the cockpit” is no match for several hijackers, Vincent said.
Nevertheless, some lawmakers who seemed enthusiastic about armed pilots are now more reserved.
Steve Hanson, spokesman for the House Transportation Committee, said chairman Don Stevens, R-Alaska – an early advocate for allowing pilots to be armed – will abide by McGaw’s decision.
“When Chairman Young wrote the Aviation Security legislation, he purposely wrote it so that the final decision [on arming pilots] would be made by the TSA,” Hanson told WorldNetDaily. “He wanted them to look at it, discuss all the details, then make a decision.
“The comments made by Secretary Mineta, Undersecretary McGaw, and now Gov. Ridge, seem to indicate they will not pursue, at this point, allowing pilots to have firearms,” he said. “Therefore, Chairman Young will be supportive of the final decision.”
In a letter to Mineta last year, Young said he supported arming pilots and urged the transportation secretary to implement the sections of a newly passed aviation security law permitting them to do so.
“We hope that you and the new undersecretary will move expeditiously to implement Section 128 [of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act] in order that these indispensable provisions [allowing pilots to carry guns] can be carried out seamlessly and without delay,” Young wrote in a letter signed by 60 House members.
Airline pilots groups, however, are still pushing.
“An armed flight crewmember would be the last line of defense and would be able to protect his/her crew, the passengers and, ultimately, people and property on the ground,” said Capt. Duane Woerth, president of the Airline Pilots Association, in a petition sent to the Transportation Department March 1.
“Moreover, armed flight crewmembers would be a deterrent to hijacking because hijackers would have to not only consider how to defeat the multiple security layers but also how they would overcome armed flight crewmembers after breaking into the cockpit,” Woerth wrote.
ALPA, which represents more than 64,000 commercial pilots, also suggested that the new Transportation Security Administration establish an advisory committee to develop an advisory circular to assist air carriers in formulating and submitting their respective plans to arm flight crewmembers, according to the petition.
One official, who asked not to be identified, said federal law enforcement “wasn’t too happy” about arming pilots. “They think only they should be armed,” he said.