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Editorial: Armed and dubious / Having guns in the cockpit is a bad idea

Thursday, September 12, 2002

The popularity of guns in America owes much to nightmare scenarios. In the home, the scenario features an intruder who will rape and maim family members but for the gun kept in the dresser drawer. In the airliner cockpit, the scenario imagines a terrorist who will stop at nothing and can be stopped by nothing except an armed pilot.

Both scenarios have just enough plausibility to influence public opinion, but other scenarios are more likely. In the home, that gun in the drawer can just as easily be picked up by a curious child, or used in a marital argument, or be an all-too-convenient instrument to end needlessly a depressed person's life. Such tragedies are commonplace.

Up until now, Americans have not had to worry about the dangers associated with commercial pilots having guns -- that is, whether the risks outweigh the advantages -- but the hijackings a year ago changed all that (although there's no evidence that armed pilots would have made a difference, given that the terrorists had the advantage of complete surprise).

Last week, the U.S. Senate, by a lopsided vote of 87-6, followed the lead of the U.S. House in June in permitting pilots to be armed.

The Bush administration, not known as a stronghold of gun control advocates, had sensibly opposed this move but is now showing more flexibility in face of the strong political tide. But the new head of the Transportation Security Administration, James M. Loy, says several issues must be addressed -- among them, liability, international legal issues and cost. That last could be expensive: Mr. Loy estimates $900 million to start up the program and $250 million annually to maintain it, The Washington Post reported.

The problem with arming pilots is not that pilots can't be trusted; after all, many come from military backgrounds and are used to firearms. The problem is the logistical challenge. The more guns permitted behind the security checkpoints the more chances for fake pilots with phony IDs or guns being stolen, misplaced or misused. More guns could actually make flying less secure.

A letter sent to senators from 21 airline chief executives made this point extremely well: "While we are spending literally billions of dollars to keep dangerous weapons off of aircraft, the idea of intentionally introducing thousands of deadly weapons into the system appears to be dangerously counterproductive."

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