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Weapons on Passenger Planes

It's quite clear screening passengers prior to boarding an airplane is, at best, ineffective in preventing weapons from being brought on board.  This is not to say the screeners, their management, or the TSA are incompetent.  I believe it to be an practically impossible task.  It has been a known problem for over 25 years and no solution appears to be at hand.  Because screening is ineffective it insures the law abiding passengers are disarmed.  It creates a safe working environment for those who would use airplanes for evil intent. 

The alternatives (even absurd ones are included for completeness) to the current boondoggle are as follows in order of most to least intrusive:

  1. Render all passengers unconscious for the duration of the flight.
  2. 100% hand searches of all carry on and body cavity searches.
  3. Put uniformed armed guards on all flights.
  4. Put undercover armed guards on a significant portion of all flights.
  5. All existing law enforcement officials required to be armed on flights.
  6. License passengers to carry weapons on board any flight.
  7. Allow passengers with exiting concealed weapon permits to carry weapons on board any flight.
  8. Allow all passengers to carry weapons on board any flight.

Each of these are examined in detail below.

Render all passengers unconscious for the duration of the flight

Expensive, a health hazard and unacceptable to the public.

100% hand searches of all carry on and body cavity searches

The only way to prevent weapons from being carried on board is to do 100% hand searches of carry-on luggage and fully body cavity searches.  To implement the 100% hand searches of luggage and fully body cavity searches would require a tremendous increase in cost even if the flying public were tolerant of such activities.  Even that will not prevent a corrupt or conspiring screener from allowing a passenger to carry weapons on board.  And with tens of thousands of screeners across the country the chances of one or more being accessible to a terrorist is very high. 

Put uniformed armed guards on all flights

This has obvious advantages.  The disadvantage is that a team of terrorists could take all of the guards by surprise at the same time.  This method of attack would probably have a high probability of success.

Put undercover armed guards on a significant portion of all flights

This is essentially what the Federal Air Marshal program does.  However, there currently aren't enough guards to be on more than a very small fraction of the flights.  If the $1.8 billion currently spent on screeners and the infrastructure to support them were used to pay for more Federal Air Marshals (perhaps as many 10,000 marshals could be supported for this price) our airplanes would be much, much safer.   The downside is that even with 10,000 marshals only a fraction of the flights would have a team on board.  There are about 35000 flights in the U.S. each day.  Considering time off, vacations, and training, probably only about 5,000 marshals would be available at any given day.  The number of marshals on a team is probably classified but is probably at least three people.  Assuming each team covers an average of three flights in one shift then about one out of seven flights would have a team on board.  Even by concentrating on the higher risk flights (small commuter planes are probably are not a significant threat) even 50% coverage of these high risk flights is not achievable with so few dollars.

All existing law enforcement officials required to be armed on flights

Currently law enforcement officers (LEOs) aren't allowed to carry unless they have a specific need to be armed on the flight.  This would be the case when they transporting a prisoner for example.  If we can trust them with a gun while with a prisoner why not trust them with a gun when they are traveling on or off duty for other purposes?  I can't imagine this being a problem for anyone and would add a significant number of people to the security pool. 

How many people would this be?  According to this site (updated 7/12/04) there are about 870,000 sworn LEOs now serving in the U.S.  If they flew an average of one flight a month and the officers never flew on the same flight as another that would cover about 29,000 flights a day (about 83% of the total flights).  This is a huge win for airplane security.  But the assumption of officers always flying on separate flights is false.  This number should probably be dropped by at least the amount predicted by a flat random distribution which would result in about 55% of our flights being protected by one or more LEOs.

How would the mechanics of getting these LEOs on board and past security with a firearm work?  I'm sure there is more than one way of doing this.  But my first approach would be that LEOs be given a special ID card that licenses them for airplane security and would be in a database for the TSA agents.  When the TSA agent asks for your ID and boarding pass the LEO would give them their license with the boarding pass.  They would scan the machine readable license into their computer and enter the flight and seat number.  The computer would notify the air marshals of someone else that might be armed on the flight and display a description and picture of the LEO on the screen and give them one or more innocent sounding coded questions to ask.  These questions might be something like, "How is the weather at home?"  or "Where did you get those shoes?".  If you matched the description, looked like the person on their computer screen (very unreliable by the way), and answered correctly the metal detector would be disabled as they walked through.  It is important that other passengers not know who they are, just as it is with the current air marshals.  If there were other security people on the plane they would called to the podium just before boarding and given that information.

How much protection would one or more LEOs on a flight give us?  A terrorist team would most likely develop strategies for minimizing the chances of encountering an LEO and neutralizing that threat to their plans if one were encounters.  This might work like this: the terrorist team chooses flights with small numbers of passengers on the probably valid assumption that the fewer people on board the less likely they are to encounter one or more LEOs.   And if they do encounter one he or she is more likely to be the only LEO on board.  One or more of the terrorists have seats in the rear of the plane and do not draw attention to themselves when their teammates in the front of the plane "make their move".  This draws the attention and action of the LEO which exposes him or her to the terrorists in the rear of the plane who neutralize the LEO.

License passengers to carry weapons on board any flight

The marksmanship requirements for speed and accuracy of Air Marshals are the most demanding of any law enforcement agency in the U.S.  However they are not beyond the reach of many private citizens who shoot on a regular basis.  We have reserve police officers that are essentially unpaid volunteers and are allowed to carry firearms.  Why not volunteer (while on normal air travel) air marshals?  Have them qualified to the same marksmanship standard once a year (instead of prior to each flight), require some unarmed self-defense training, do a psychological interview (no "cowboy/hero types"), do a  political and criminal background check on them and they should be a cheap and effective addition to our airplane security.

They could get on the plane in a manner identical to that described in the case above where all existing LEOs are required to be armed on flights.

How many additional security people would this add to the security mix?  Even if the volunteers were required to pay for their own training and a modest license fee I would expect there would thousands that would volunteer and qualify.  As near as I can tell via the United States Practical Shooting Association class distribution there are at least 3000 shooters that could qualify.  I added up all the Class B (which I believe can meet the marksmanship standard) and above active "Limited" shooters. I chose the Limited category because that is the category with the most shooters with guns that could be plausibly be concealed.  There are almost for certain many more "Ltd 10" and "Production" shooters that are not represented in the "Limited" category (many shooters have classifications with more than one type of gun) that could meet the requirements.  There are other shooting disciplines and thousands of people that don't compete on a regular enough basis to show up in my quick search on the number of people that might be available.  So double the 3000 to be 6000 to be optimistic on the number of people that could and would become licensed "air marshal reservists".  Even if those 6000 people on the average flew an optimistic average of one flight a month that would only about another 200 flights a day (about 0.6% of the total flights) to those with security personal on board.

Allow passengers with existing concealed weapon permits to carry weapons on board any flight

In the states that have "shall issue" licensing about 4% of the population acquires licenses to carry concealed firearms.  Typically about half of those are carrying at any one time.  Since not all states are "shall issue" states the total number of people nationwide with licenses to carry is somewhat less than the typical 4%.  Something like 3% is probably a better number.  Assuming half of these choose to carry on any give day would mean that we have about 4 million people carry on any given day.  If these people fly an average of one flight a month that would result in about 150,000 people with concealed firearms flying every day on the 35,000 flights.  This results in nearly all flights being protected by one or more people with concealed firearms.

These people could again be allowed on the plane in a manner identical to that described in the case above where all existing LEOs are required to be armed on flights.  This would require access to the state databases of concealed carry licensees and some additional security measures such as the coded questions but that probably isn't an insurmountable problem.

There are some holes in this security method. 

  1. Existing permit holders could very well include "sleeper agents" that have permits.  Or terrorists would acquire the permits before they hijacked the plane.  With permits if they are introduced to the other permit holders on the plane they could decide to abort their plans or to neutralize them first.  This means that concealed weapons holders must be further screened or else they must not be revealed to other permit holders.
  2. They can be neutralized in a manner identical to the case when LEOs are required to carry when flying.

The concern of many people with this method is that the people in some cases have no formal training in firearms use.  Would this result in "shootouts in the sky" over mistakes in gestures or "air rage" over someone talking when other were trying to sleep or some such other thing?  I think the answer must be no.  To the best of my knowledge the rate of those type of incidents on buses and trains where no screening is done and concealed carry is common is essentially zero.

Allow all passengers to carry weapons on board any flight

This option would mean the incredibly expensive, intolerably intrusive, and useless screening of all passengers would stop.  The terrorists could not expose the passengers with weapons prior to making a move and would not know if the plane was completely undefended or was nearly filled with police officers on their way to a SWAT convention.  The would still be techniques to flush the people with weapons into the open but the chances they could neutralize all of them would be much less.  Everyone on board the plane would know that they had a role in the security of the plane would would be more likely to participate in those security efforts.

Concerns about unskilled and improper use of the weapons should be no different than in the case of states that allow concealed carry without permits or training.  Vermont and Alaska do not currently require permits to carry concealed weapons and some states, such as Washington, do not require training to obtain a permit.  The "error rates" of private citizens using their guns in these states does not appear to be significantly above the norm to be noticeable enough to rate the attention of the numerous anti-gun groups.  And nationwide there is evidence that armed citizen have much lower rates of shooting innocent people.

The big down side is that explosives could be easily brought on board with zero screening.  Of course this is the case with any gathering of people such as sporting events, theaters, restaurants, night clubs, and shopping malls.  Bring down an airplane with 200 people on board would be easy with a relatively small amount of explosives and results in the certain death of all on board.  Larger bombs are required to achieve similar casualty levels while on the ground but such bombs are much easier to transport unnoticed while on the ground as well.  If additional protection was desired bomb sniffing dogs could make a pass through random or selected planes just prior to take off and probably reduce the risk to something lower than that experienced by people participating in group activities on the ground.

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Last update: Tuesday December 07, 2004