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Terrorists exploit America's gun phobia

By Dr. Michael S. Brown
web posted September 24, 2001

As the immediate shock of the September eleventh attacks transmutes into long-term anger, Americans are asking tough questions. Members of the gun rights community have their own views on airline security, probably not shared by mainstream society, but worth considering in light of the extraordinary challenges that face us.

Under current rules, airline passengers are disarmed and pilots forbidden to carry guns on the theory that guns are dangerous and would only escalate a violent situation. As with other shortsighted anti-gun efforts, this one wrongly assumed that safety was assured if guns could be eliminated. The success of the terrorist attacks certainly made a mockery of that policy.

Members of the gun rights community are wondering what would have happened if a passenger on one or more of the doomed jetliners had been armed with a simple handgun. No doubt some have, in their dreams, envisioned a little old lady with a revolver dispatching the suicide squad before they could overpower the unarmed aircrew.

For decades, Americans have been taught from a very young age that it is not appropriate to resist criminals, especially if there is some risk involved in doing so. Instead we are told to call 911 and wait for helpful government employees to arrive. Heart-wrenching reports of doomed passengers dialing 911 in vain are an indicator of how successfully we have been disarmed and indoctrinated.

Those who have not been paying attention to security issues seem surprised at how easy it was for a group of determined men to take over four jetliners. But we have already seen how easily one or two armed individuals can terrorize a school or office when all occupants have been disarmed by law.

Arming pilots and making cockpit doors more secure seems like an obvious measure that everyone should agree with. However this still leaves passengers in the main cabin vulnerable to attackers with improvised or smuggled weapons and pilots open to psychological pressure resulting from threats against the passengers.

So far, plans to improve airline safety involve expensive new security forces and more intrusive passenger searches. Travelers will now be stripped of even the smallest nail clippers or scissors. Long delays at airports are expected to discourage casual travel.

Advocates of armed civilian defense believe they have a better idea. They point out that thousands of potential security guards are already available.

Millions of citizens across the country possess concealed weapon permits. This group has proven to be the most law-abiding segment of our society, even more so than police officers. A smaller subset of permit holders has acquired a high level of firearms training at numerous schools across the country. Some of the techniques they learn are borrowed from counter-terrorist experts. In many cases, the training exceeds that of ordinary policemen.

The size of this group is unknown, but it must number in the tens of thousands. Most of these men and women have adopted self-defense shooting as a sport and some have developed an amazing level of skill. It's a safe bet that thousands of these individuals would volunteer to be unpaid security officers when they are flying anyway for business or personal reasons.

This group is exquisitely aware of the special circumstances involved in using guns on aircraft and would gladly take additional specialized training. They would expect to obey certain restrictions on the type of guns and ammunition used. For example, special ammunition is available that will not penetrate the skin of an aircraft.

By placing armed and trained civilians on flights at random, terrorist planning would be enormously complicated. It would not be possible for attackers to identify the armed guard before the attack, since he or she would look like an ordinary passenger. There might be more than one and very few would fit the profile of a hard-eyed, crew cut Federal Marshal.

The cost would be miniscule compared to that of assigning a paid law enforcement officer to each flight, current metal detector based searches would be adequate, and it would guarantee an immediate end to hijackings. Unfortunately, America has not yet recovered from its gun phobia enough to explore this cheap and effective solution.

While we are perfectly comfortable having our soldiers shoot as many terrorists as possible, there is an illogical knee-jerk reaction to the idea of citizens participating in their own defense. The anti-gun lobby and other advocates of a disarmed and helpless public must bear some responsibility for the shamefully vulnerable position we now occupy.

Dr. Michael S. Brown is an optometrist and member of Doctors for Sensible Gun Laws.

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