Survey: Pilots Want Option for Guns, Mineta Opposed

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said Monday that he is still opposed to arming pilots of commercial airliners, despite a recent survey showing that nearly 75 percent of the nation's pilots favor the move.

"I've expressed a personal opinion on this," Mineta said. "I don't feel that we should have lethal weapons in the cockpit. I believe that stun guns or tasers, as they're referred to, can be a possibility."

In a survey conducted Feb. 3-9, 2002, 73 percent of the members of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) surveyed supported "authorization of pilots who volunteer to be armed with firearms for defense of the flight deck." The survey had a margin of error of 3 percent with a 95 percent confidence rating.

"It must be recognized that even with the replacement of the cockpit door, the terrorist threat is so sophisticated that terrorists will devise other ways to breach the secure door," wrote Capt. Duane Woerth, president of ALPA, in a petition to the FAA.

"In such a circumstance, an armed flight crewmember would be the last line of defense and would be able to protect his/her crew, the passengers and, ultimately, people and property on the ground," he wrote.

ALPA is the largest airline pilots union, representing 64,000 pilots at 45 airlines in the U.S. The group sent the petition to the FAA Feb. 28 seeking new rules that would allow pilots to be armed under strict conditions.

Under the ALPA proposal, arming of pilots would be voluntary. Pilots would need background checks and screening, be given training equivalent to that given to federal law enforcement officers, and be deputized as federal law enforcement officers.

Mineta said no final determination has been made, because he has not been able to meet with officials from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), attorney general's office, and White House to discuss the matter.

John Velleco, director of federal affairs for Gun Owners of America, says he's not surprised by Mineta's comments.

"He expressed his opinion on guns, in general, when he was in Congress prior to 1994, when he was an F-minus rated anti-gun leader who introduced anti-gun bills and took money from Handgun Control, Inc.," Velleco said. "So we know that he's no friend of the Second Amendment."

He says, despite Mineta's personal animus toward guns, the secretary really has little choice in the matter.

"Congress has spoken. The law is passed. The president signed the law. The secretary and the under secretary for Transportation Security don't have discretion as to whether or not pilots will be armed," Velleco added. "They have discretion in the type of firearm and the type of ammunition. But that's about the extent of their discretion."

He says Mineta should be working to implement the law as quickly as possible not using his position to further his personal views.

"If he can't do that, if his anti-gun ideology is going to prevent him from carrying out his duties," Velleco concluded, "then he needs to do the honorable thing and resign and let the president appoint someone to that position that can implement the law."

He says it's especially disingenuous of Mineta to say that pilots should not be armed when the nation's new homeland defense strategy calls for military jets to shoot down hijacked airliners.

"They're arguing that greater force is warranted but lesser force is not," Velleco observed. "That's ridiculous."

Jonathan Thompson, TSA's new associate under secretary for communications, disagrees.

"I think you're talking about two different things, and I think it's important to distinguish between them," Thompson argued. "To talk about those two in conjunction, I don't believe they're relevant. You can't say that a shoot-down and a weapon in the cockpit are mutually inclusive. They are not."

The TSA needs a reality check, according to Velleco.

"In spite of reinforced cockpit doors and the supposed increased security at airports, if someone gains access to the flight deck, they break through that reinforced door," Velleco warned, "they'd better be met with lethal force or suddenly you're going to have hundreds, if not thousands of lives at risk."

First Officer Al Aitken represents 600 Washington-area-based pilots on the board of directors of the Allied Pilots Association. He also serves as deputy chairman of the APA's Committee for Armed Defense of the Cockpit. Aitken supports Velleco's assertion.

"We want to remain behind the improved, impervious, locked cockpit door," Aitken said in a previous interview. "The only time we would use a weapon is if somebody, somehow or other figures out a way to blow that thing open and tries to come in to the cockpit."

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