Call to arms

Posted: Sep 13, 2002 12:00 AM
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 required. 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 bills. 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 their employees. 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.