You’ve just settled in for a transcontinental flight aboard your favorite commercial airline. Having placed your half-ounce bag of pretzels and heavily iced soda on your tray table, you gingerly recline in your seat and prepare to snooze some of your flying time away. As you close your eyes, a voice sounds over the intercom:
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have reached our cruising altitude of 30,000 feet and our flight speed of 650 miles per hour. Today, courtesy of the federal government and a weeklong training course in southern Georgia, co-pilot Dan and I will be joined in the cockpit by a .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun. Feel free to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight. And thanks for flying the friendly skies.”
Still feel like taking that nap?
Starting this week, the first wave of commercial airline pilots will begin bringing guns into the cockpit. The $900 million program, organized by the Transportation Security Administration in response to the Sept. 11 hijackings, hopes to have one in three pilots armed within five years. After spending billions of dollars over the past year and a half to keep weapons off airplanes, the federal government will now spend nearly a billion more to put them back on. Even if this makes sense to you, solving a safety issue by throwing guns at it shouldn’t.
The first problem is the guns themselves. Various studies have shown that guns are just as likely to exacerbate a violent situation as they are to resolve it. Even the most highly trained police officers are often unable to defend themselves with their weapons. In fact, officers only have a 20 percent accuracy ratio in armed confrontations, and many have their own guns turned against them when killed in the line of duty. Subtract years of on-the-job training and add the stress of trying to fly an airplane while being assaulted, and the chances of a pilot actually being able to ward off a potential hijacker without doing serious damage to himself or to the aircraft begin to seem about as likely as the chances of you getting that nail clipper past the security checkpoint.
And why so much focus on the cockpit anyway? If post-Sept. 11 hijack attempts have taught us anything, it’s that the danger and solution are far more likely to come from the cabin. In Dec. of 2001, Richard Reid was subdued by stewardesses when he attempted to ignite a bomb in his shoe, and in three separate incidents in 2002, passengers who tried to break into the cockpit were taken down by their fellow travelers. In none of these cases did the pilots have a gun, and in none was a gun warranted. It’s also unclear what good a handgun in the cockpit would have done had Reid been successful in blowing his American Airlines flight to pieces.
All of this said, a plane’s crew do have the right to defend themselves and their passengers.
But over the past year, little thought seems to have been put into aspects of airline safety that do not involve pilots packing heat in the flight seat. A plan to equip airline crews with stun guns and tasers, which are ideal for close quarters and are unlikely to cause collateral damage to the plane or other passengers, was rejected by Congress last summer. And the guns-for-pilots program itself threatens to draw needed attention and funding away from improvements to airport screening procedures. Such procedures should be seen as the most important line of defense against terrorism, as they neutralize dangers on the ground before they have a chance to become threats in the sky. Israel’s national airline El Al owes much of its security success to the comprehensive nature of its pre-flight screening program. The airline has not had a hijacking in 34 years — and none of its pilots carry guns.
Even if arming pilots does prevent airline hijackings, it’s foolish to think that the terrorists will not move on to other targets. When the next attack comes, will we follow the irresponsible precedent set by putting guns in the cockpit? Will we give guns to Greyhound bus drivers? How about train and subway operators? Or referees at large sporting events?
Overall, there needs to be a concerted effort to make security smarter — not deadlier. Money must be spent in the right places, and there needs to more of a focus on prevention than on dealing with dangerous situations after they have already arisen. Most of all, we need to make sure our “solutions” don’t end up making the problem worse. Until then, we’re all in for a bumpy ride.
David Grimm is a fifth-year graduate student in the Department of Genetics. His column appears regularly on alternate Thursdays.