Guns in Responsible Hands: The Best Defense Against Terrorism in the AirCommentary by H. Sterling Burnett
October 11, 2001
In the aftermath of the horrific terrorist skyjackings in New York and Washington, D.C., in which misguided thugs sought martyrdom by turning commercial airliners into guided missiles, many proposals have been put forward to ensure that such terrible events never occur again. Unfortunately, arming pilots, the policy most likely to effectively deter or prevent future terrorists skyjackings (suicidal or not), is being treated with disdain by gun control groups. Evidently, they hate and fear guns more than they care about passenger safety.
Contrary to the available evidence, advocates of gun control continue to argue that allowing trained citizens to carry firearms results in increased violence. We have now seen a controlled experiment on the issue and the results are indisputable. Israelis live under the constant threat of terrorist shootings and suicide bombings. Yet since El Al airlines armed its pilots and flight attendants, they have yet to suffer a skyjacking. In the U.S. and other countries, by contrast, armed pilots are not allowed.
Arming pilots should not be a last resort, but rather the first response to the threat of terrorism. Certainly increasing the security at airports is a good idea. But no security system is perfect - even military bases can be breached.
Everyone also agrees that reinforcing cockpits is a good idea, but airline engineers and manufacturers point out that there are structural limits to how strong and heavy cockpit doors can be made. Accordingly, given enough time, determined attackers would be able to defeat even the strongest of cockpit doors.
Increasing the number of sky marshals is another good idea. The problem is there are about 35,000 flights a day in the U.S. Hiring even half that number of marshals - presuming each marshal made at least two flights a day and never missed a flight due to flight delay or illness - would cost more than $1 billion dollars annually. In addition, simply due to their flying habits, terrorists doing reconnaissance would often be able to identify sky marshals and thus neutralize them in a skyjacking attempt. If that happened, the terrorists would have the marshal's firearm to use during the assault.
We've all been conditioned by action movies to believe that firing a gun in a plane results in instant disaster as the plane depressurizes and passengers are sucked out into the sky. It just ain't so. Marshals are equipped with high velocity ammunition that is designed to expand on impact with soft tissue but to break apart and not penetrate hard surfaces like the aluminum skin of an airplane. Pilots could be equipped with the same ammunition.
Airline pilots are among the most highly trained and carefully screened professionals in the world. The majority of them have military training and thus some familiarity with firearms. Each pilot is daily entrusted with aircraft valued at many millions of dollars, carrying both thousands of gallons of extremely volatile jet fuel and thousands of passengers. Their job requires them to make split second, critical decisions, sometimes in life or death circumstances.
America should not, and need not, suffer through another day like September 11, 2001 ever again. Arming pilots costs less and is less inconvenient and less personally intrusive than any other proposed response to skyjackings. But more importantly, it is the response most likely keep both airline passengers and people on the ground safe from terrorist assaults in the sky. People already trust pilots with their lives - it's time to trust them with firearms.