Guns in the sky

A congressman wants to arm pilots, crew and a sky marshal. Will that fly in our post-9/11 world?

By Jake Tapper

Published September 21, 2001 12:42AM (EDT)

There's nothing new about it. On one side are those who see salvation in the self-defense potential of owning a gun. On the other are those who argue that guns frequently end up being used for darker purposes. And yet, in our post-9/11 new world, those age-old debates are taking on unexpected forms.

On Friday, Sept. 14, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, introduced legislation that would take the concept of sky marshals one rather sizable step forward: allowing not only sky marshals, but pilots, copilots and navigators to carry a firearm onto a plane.

Federal Aviation Agency spokeswoman Alison Duquette said that while the FAA doesn't comment on legislation, Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta has two rapid-response teams on airplane and airport security planning to hand down recommendations by Oct. 1. Cockpit security will be one of the issues addressed, so "the right to carry weapons could be one of the recommendations," she said.

Gun control groups argue that such a move might actually make flights less safe. While voicing support for armed law enforcement personnel, such as sky marshals, Nancy Hwa, a spokeswoman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, says that allowing crew members to bring guns with them on planes is another matter.

"Certainly security needs to be beefed up on these airlines," Hwa says. "But we don't think that allowing a navigator or a member of the flight crew to carry a gun makes passengers safer. All you're doing is increasing the risk so that terrorists would have access to guns in the air, so even if they can't get one onto a plane, they can get it from the flight crew."

Mike Hammond, a consultant with Gun Owners of America, said that "presumably this would be in conjunction with a strong and consistently bolted door," though Paul's proposed legislation makes no mention of cockpit doors.

The Air Line Pilots Association isn't exactly leaping to embrace Paul's legislation, meanwhile. "At this point, given the situation, everything's on the table to be looked at," says ALPA spokesman Ron Lovas. "But that idea raises more questions than it answers."

Some of the sticking points for ALPA are: How would an armed pilot get through security and onto the aircraft safely? Who maintains the possession of the gun when it's not in use? Under what conditions would the use of the gun be authorized? How would a pilot be qualified to carry a gun? Which government agency would be point of contact, the FAA or the FBI?

Gun Owners of America's Hammond says that "most pilots -- at least most of the ones I know -- are former military trainees and as such have experience in using firearms. They are in a position where they could take command of the situation." ALPA's questions pale in comparison, he argues, with "the situation last Tuesday where hijackers were slashing throats of stewardesses and trained military personnel couldn't do anything to respond."

But ALPA's Lovas says that the idea that most pilots are former members of the military is fallacious. While ALPA doesn't have a database of military membership, the "corporate memory" around the office from a decade ago, during Desert Shield and Desert Storm, had approximately 50 percent of their members as either veterans, members of the National Guard or members of the Reserves. "We think that number has dwindled," Lovas says.

None of which is meant to dismiss the idea out of hand, Lovas stresses. "At this point we need to look at all the options."

Rep. Paul's way of thinking on a more domestic front was apparently in play immediately after the Sept. 11 terror, reminding us -- to a degree -- of gun arguments past.

On that Tuesday and a day or so after, firearms and ammunition sales enjoyed what Hammond calls a "a major spike" in sales. The firearm industry's trade organization, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, has called the sales increase "slight" and only among certain dealers in certain states, like New York and Connecticut.

Some gun dealers were actually concerned that there would be a spike, one rooted in irrationality and panic. Wary of a run on guns made in the heat of the horror, executives at Kmart Corp. made the immediate decision on Sept. 11 to remove all ammunition and firearms from the sales floors in all their stores -- a decision that a Kmart spokeswoman described as "a precautionary safety measure," albeit one that the chain overturned the next day.

Another firearm dealer, Denver-based sports chain Gart Sports, also temporarily suspended gun sales immediately after the attack after executives saw ammo sales in their Texas and Colorado stores go through the roof that Tuesday morning. "We sell firearms for the sportsman and the sportswoman and are not at all interested in fueling irrational acts," Doug Morton, Gart Sports president and CEO, said at the time.

Gun control advocates point to the three possible hate crime homicides committed against Americans who appear Middle Eastern in the wake of the tragedy, all of which were committed with firearms.

In Mesa, Ariz., a gas station owner and Sikh immigrant named Balbir Singh Sodhi was allegedly shot by a man who also allegedly fired upon a gas station owned by a man of Lebanese descent and upon the home of an Afghan family. In Dallas, Waqar Hasan, a Pakistani Muslim store owner was shot to death, as was an Egyptian Christian grocery store owner named Adel Karas, in Los Angeles. It has not been officially determined yet whether any of these crimes were racially or ethnically motivated, though FBI director Robert Mueller has said that the three shootings are being investigated along with 40 or so other possible hate crimes.

Asked about the three U.S. gun deaths that occurred in the tragedy's wake, Hammond said, "My guess would be that there were dozens, hundreds of incidents of the use of firearms" since Tuesday, Sept. 11, "and 100- to 200- or a thousand-to-one were used to avert crimes rather than commit crimes."

In addition, on Saturday, in Spotsylvania, Va., a 3-year-old boy, Kyle Phillips, fatally shot himself with a handgun that his father brought into the house for protection after the terrorist attacks. The Spotsylvania County Sheriff's Department told reporters that the handgun had been hanging on a window curtain rod above Kyle's bed.

It was this last incident that propelled Sarah Brady, chairwoman of the Brady Center, to issue the reminder "that a gun in the home is far more likely to be used to kill or injure a loved one than to be used in self-defense." Brady urged those who choose to buy a gun to keep it locked up and stored out of the reach of children.

Hammond argued that the media only publicizes the times that guns are used improperly rather than when they're used in self-defense, which he says happens somewhere between 1.5 million and 2.5 million times a year. Asked if he could name one such time since Sept, 11, he said, "not off the top of my head," but that next month's American Riflemen was sure to have examples.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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