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Senate Vote Allows Commercial Pilots To Carry Handguns in Airline Cockpits

By Sara Kehaulani Goo

Despite concerns raised by the Bush administration and airlines, the Senate Thursday overwhelmingly voted to allow commercial pilots to carry guns in cockpits to prevent hijackings.

The 87 to 6 vote, on an amendment to a bill creating a Homeland Security Department, came after an intense lobbying effort by pilots, who have argued that security since the Sept. 11 hijackings has not improved enough to keep terrorists off their planes.

In July, the House approved, by a 310 to 113 vote, a separate measure giving pilots the right to have guns in cockpits.

Sen. Robert Smith (R-N.H.), a key sponsor of the Senate amendment, told reporters that the “overwhelming support” in both houses made him optimistic that Congress would pass a measure arming pilots. Supporters said differences between the House and Senate measures would be worked out in a conference committee on Homeland Security legislation, or the Senate would pass a stand-alone bill, if the Homeland Security bill should falter.

Under the Senate plan, the Transportation Security Administration must set up, within 90 days, a training program for pilots to carry guns.

The Bush administration for months has opposed the pilots’ efforts to get guns. Thursday, James Loy, the new TSA chief, took a more conciliatory tone. In a letter to lawmakers, Loy said he would work with them to create a program, but he warned that the government must address a series of complex issues -- including liability, international legal issues and cost.

The Senate amendment, sponsored by Smith and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), would arm any commercial pilot who agrees to undergo training. Unlike the House bill, the Senate measure requires airlines to provide flight attendants with more self-defense training and with wireless devices to communicate with pilots in emergencies. It also directs airlines to install video cameras in aircraft cabins to allow pilots to see what is happening.

“We cannot sit on our hands and let (Sept. 11) happen again,” said Boxer, citing news reports that airport screeners are still failing to detect weapons in carry-on luggage. “The security checkpoints are not doing what they should.”

In his letter, Loy recommended that pilots keep guns in a lockbox, which would be used to transport the weapon to and from the aircraft. He said arming pilots presents international legal and liability issues, because of gun control laws abroad.

Loy said TSA would need to work extensively with other countries to clarify rights and responsibilities of armed airline employees traveling abroad and decide if employees of foreign air carriers could carry guns into the United States.