Vin Suprynowicz

The Libertarian

Vin Suprynowicz

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The story is told -- documentation seems scant -- that at the advent of the automobile, certain jurisdictions enacted ordinances requiring a man to walk in front of each vehicle waving a red flag, the better to avoid frightening the horses.

The reaction of the dairy states to the introduction of oleomargarine, being more recent, is easier to document. Though the dairy lobby failed in early attempts to require that the competing product be dyed purple or green, it was illegal for decades to sell pre-colored margarine in parts of the Midwest. (The stuff is naturally white; housewives were required to stir in their own orange dye to make it look butter-like.)

Some day, the current foot-dragging of the bureaucrats of the Transportation Security Administration in answer to the post-Sept. 11 congressional mandate that American airline pilots must again be allowed and encouraged to fly with sidearms may rank right up there with these historical knee-slappers.

“Until the early 1960s, American commercial passenger pilots on any flight carrying U.S. mail were required to carry handguns,” reported John R. Lott, Jr. in the National Review of Sept. 2, 2003.

Not merely “allowed,” mind you: “required.”

“The requirement started at the beginning of commercial aviation to insure that pilots could defend the mail if their plane were to ever crash,” Mr. Lott continued. (See “In contrast to the current program, there were no training or screening requirements. Indeed, pilots were still allowed to carry guns until as recently as 1987. There are no records that any of these pilots (either military or commercial) carrying guns have ever caused any significant problems.”

To this day, about 70 percent of American commercial pilots have military backgrounds. All must pass rigorous physical and psychological screenings before being entrusted with multi-million-dollar aircraft and the lives of hundreds of passengers.

Yet the obstacle course the TSA has erected to limit the arming of our pilots -- in an era when the agency admits a wide range of lethal weapons (think plastic or ceramic knives) remain undetectable to their screening system -- remains a wonderment.

One problem with the “federal flight deck officer program” is an additional set of psychological and background investigation, even more intrusive than that required for the vast majority of air marshals.

Information from the new screenings can be turned over to the Federal Aviation Administration and used to revoke a pilot’s commercial license, explains David Mackett, president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, a grassroots organization that favors the firearms. Talk about a disincentive.

Besides, as one current pilot of our own acquaintance put it, “If I’m the kind of guy who’s going to use a pistol to shoot my first officer and then do some harm, don’t you think I can wait for him to go to the bathroom and then fly that plane into a mountain, right now? It’s ridiculous.”

And there’s more. Pilots must pay their own transportation to the only site where a required six-day training course is offered -- Artesia, N.M., a locale which could hardly have been better chosen for inaccessibility. And they usually end up forgoing $3,000 to $4,000 in pay during that week.

Many pilots also ridicule rigid rules governing how the guns must be handled. During a flight, pilots are not allowed to take guns out of the cockpit to go to the restroom. Yet that’s when the cockpit is most vulnerable to attack, says Mackett, a captain for a major airline.

“The moment the cockpit door is open, that federal flight deck officer doesn’t have a weapon on him, and that just makes no sense,” Mackett says.

“The process of becoming a Federal Flight Deck Officer is based on the federal law enforcement officer model,” responds Douglas Hladky, special agent in charge of the Federal Air Marshall Service’s Las Vegas field office. “This level of training is crucial.”

Yeah? Are Secret Service agents, federal air marshals, and FBI gomers not allowed to carry their sidearms into the little boys’ room? Who are they supposed to leave them with, the little old lady in the next seat?

As a result of such restrictions, says pilot Mackett of the APSA, about 50,000 pilots have declined to volunteer for the program. As a result, only about 4 percent of domestic flights today carry an armed pilot.

Nonetheless, despite all this, “Five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, a growing number of U.S. airline pilots are packing heat, prepared to use lethal force to protect the cockpit,” reported Kem Kaye of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, in mid-February.

A full two years after Congress overwhelmingly OK’d the arming of pilots in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Lott found in late 2003 that only 200 of some 100,000 U.S. commercial airline pilots had been “licensed” to carry guns.

Today, though, the number of pilots voluntarily carrying guns on domestic airline flights has continued to climb, reaching 3,000 pilots at the start of 2005 and about 8,000 pilots today -- some 8 percent of the nation’s 100,000 pilots, according to the Airline Pilots Security Alliance. Why, “Soon, they will carry badges, bringing them even closer to being bona fide law enforcement officers,” enthuses Kem Kaye of the Sun-Sentinel.

In fact, this is only a symptom of the biggest problem with the TSA’s approach.

Pilots didn’t sign up to be -- they aren’t and shouldn’t be -- law enforcement officers. We don’t expect them to nab illegal aliens (forget that one: no federal officials do that any more, anyway) or collect import duties or warn hikers to make sure that campfire is really out. The “federal flight deck officer” nomenclature was devised so elitist TSA bureaucrats wouldn’t have to admit that plain old “civilians” -- including airline pilots -- have a constitutional right to be armed anywhere they go, and that, by being armed, plain old “civilians” are perfectly capable of and effective at making air travel safer ... without needing any stinking badges.

The TSA has even -- finally -- granted pilots slightly more leeway in how they take guns on board planes, the Sun-Sentinel reports. Where previously the pistols had to be transported onto planes in a ridiculous and hard-to-access heavy steel box, pilots are now “allowed” to lock their guns into holsters, which are then placed in an unassuming bag. After pilots are in the cockpit, the holsters are removed from the bag and latched onto their belts.

Though pilots still aren’t allowed to carry their own weapons, with which they might be most familiar, mind you.

Oh no. “After graduation,” reports Kem Kaye of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, “the TSA issues the pilots a Heckler & Koch .40 caliber semiautomatic revolver.”

Whatever that is.

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