In a stunning reversal, California's liberal Senator Barbara Boxer has come out in favor of allowing airline pilots to carry guns if they wish, while the Bush administration opposes it. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives has passed a bill to permit pilots to carry guns by a vote of 310 to 113.
Although Sen. Boxer is a staunch supporter of gun control, on this particular issue she clearly understands that it is better to have an armed pilot than to have to order a military plane to shoot down one of our own commercial airliners, full of innocent people, because hijackers have taken it over and are ready to do a repeat of last Sept. 11.
We can only hope that the administration is as willing as Sen. Boxer to re-think its position of opposing the arming of pilots. But the Department of Transportation remains closed-minded on the issue. When asked by Congressman Don Young, "Do you really think that 9/11 would have happened if our pilots had been armed, as they should have been armed?" a spokesman for the Department of Transportation replied: "Our position remains unchanged." It was reminiscent of the famous line: "'Shut up,' he explained."
Opponents of allowing pilots to be armed have portrayed horror movie visions of pilots and terrorists shooting it out in the aisles of airliners. But the main reason for arming pilots is not so that they can re-enact the gunfight at the OK corral. The main reason for having guns for self-defense anywhere is deterrence. In John Lott's landmark scholarly study titled "More Guns, Less Crime," he points out that most instances of the successful use of a gun in self-defense do not involve actually firing it. Just showing an aggressor that you have a firearm is usually enough to make him back off. Having it widely known in advance that people in certain places have guns is a huge deterrent to those who might otherwise be inclined to start trouble in those places.
Communities that have passed laws permitting any law-abiding citizen to carry a gun usually have immediate declines in crimes in the wake of such laws. Both criminals and terrorists prefer to attack unarmed civilians.
Even mass killers labeled "irrational" by the media and by shrinks almost invariably start shooting in places where other people are unarmed, like schools or offices. And they stop when they encounter someone else who is armed. If not, they get stopped, like the assassin at Los Angeles International Airport on July 4th.
Depending on armed marshals aboard airplanes might be an alternative to arming pilots -- if there were any realistic prospect of putting marshals on even half the vast numbers of planes that are flying every day. But hypothetical marshals are no substitute for real pilots with real guns.
Depending on stronger cockpit doors might be another alternative -- if all these doors on vast numbers of airliners could be strengthened faster than pilots can get guns. But hypothetical doors are no more protection than hypothetical marshals. Tests have also repeatedly shown that the effectiveness of security screening at our airports is also largely hypothetical.
Part of the reason for the knee-jerk reaction to firearms may be that we now have a whole generation of people -- especially in politics and among opinion-makers in the media -- who have never served in the armed forces and have no experience with guns. Fear from ignorance is understandable. But that it should be presumptuous ignorance is not.
Are there any possible dangers to arming pilots? Of course! There are dangers to your holding this newspaper, which might catch fire and set off a conflagration around you. Nothing on the face of this earth is 100 percent safe. We already know that flying on a plane with no one on board who is armed to resist terrorists is not safe.
The only meaningful question is which danger is greater. The swiftness with which the idea of arming pilots was dismissed suggests no serious interest in weighing one danger against another. It may be understandable that the Bush administration does not want to buck the media on this emotional issue in an election year. But will the widows and orphans of those who lose their lives, because there was no armed person on board to thwart terrorists, be understanding?