When Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., decided to join Sen. Bob
Smith, R-N.H., in sponsoring legislation that allows airline pilots to carry
guns as a defense against hijackers, she expressed surprise to find herself
agreeing with her conservative colleague. "I think this is the first time I
have ever stood with Senator Smith on an issue involving guns," she said.
Boxer was not the only one who was surprised. I found it hard to
believe that the inveterate gun controller could have taken the right
position in a debate that pitted the National Rifle Association against the
handgun prohibitionists at the Violence Policy Center.
It turns out she didn't. The bill supported by Boxer and Smith,
which the Senate recently passed by an 87-to-6 vote, would not simply permit
airlines to arm their pilots. It would force them to do so. Likewise the
Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act approved by the House in July, which
says airlines have to let pilots bring guns to work.
This requirement reflects a government-knows-best mentality that
suppresses innovation by overriding the choices expressed in the
marketplace. It is yet another example of Congress's determination to shrink
the boundaries of the creative realm where things are neither forbidden nor
Although the NRA implied that the gun mandate was a test of
support for the Second Amendment, this legislation has nothing to do with
the right to keep and bear arms. It would deputize pilots who complete the
government's training program as "federal flight deck officers,"
transforming them into law enforcement officials.
Deciding to arm pilots therefore says nothing about one's view
of the Second Amendment, any more than deciding to arm local police officers
or FBI agents does. No wonder gun control supporters such as Boxer and Rep.
Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., felt comfortable voting for the House and Senate
Still, some anti-gun activists, accustomed to denigrating the
defensive utility of firearms, could not stomach the idea of letting pilots
bring them into the cockpit. The Violence Policy Center tossed out its usual
red herrings, including a study finding that "21 percent of officers killed
with a handgun were shot with their own service weapon" -- a figure that
does not tell us how often such incidents occur, or how common they are
compared to cases in which police use their guns to protect people's lives.
Likewise, the group's observation that "handguns were lawfully
used by private citizens to kill in self-defense only 122 times" in 2000
does not support its conclusion that "firearms are seldom used successfully
in self-defense." Survey data collected by researchers such as Florida State
University criminologist Gary Kleck indicate that Americans use guns
defensively around 2 million times a year -- generally without firing them,
let alone killing anyone.
It's not hard to see why defenders of the Second Amendment would
react to the anti-gun lobby's distortions by throwing their support behind
the effort to arm pilots. But not all of the arguments mustered by opponents
of the legislation are so easily refuted.
Although the threat of sudden decompression has been
exaggerated, there is still the possibility that stray bullets could damage
airplane controls or kill innocent bystanders. Critics also worry that the
duties of armed defense would be a dangerous distraction from the already
demanding job of flying a jumbo jet.
Surveys indicate that a large majority of pilots think these
hazards are outweighed by the need to have a last-ditch means of defense
against hijackers who manage to break into the cockpit. At that point, the
only other option might be for the Air Force to shoot down the plane before
it becomes a devastating missile.
As a passenger, I would feel more secure with an armed pilot.
Assuming that others feel the same way, the airlines would have to take such
preferences into account. They also could not lightly dismiss the views of
But that does not mean they would all decide to give their
pilots firearms. Some might use nonlethal weapons such as stun guns, while
others might focus on making the cockpit more secure. Passengers could then
vote with their behinds on which approach was best.
Congress wants to short-circuit this process, imposing what it
considers to be the one best policy on the whole industry. That was a
mistake when the policy was to prohibit guns, and it's a mistake now that
Washington's control freaks have decided to require them.