As a former Federal Air Marshal, I am often asked, "Should law enforcement officers be allowed to carry their guns when they are passengers on commercial airliners?" My short answer is, "Hell, yes."
As it stands now, state and local police officers may only carry their duty weapons in the cabin of an aircraft when they have a need to do so that is documented by a letter from their departments. Examples of specific need include: prisoner escort, hazardous surveillance, or immediate duty at their destination.
Federal officers and agents are considered to be on duty anywhere in the country, so they have a better chance of being granted permission to carry their guns on an airliner. A state or local officer needs the following:
Proof of being a fully sworn law enforcement officer.
Credentials that include a clear full face photograph, signature, and the issuing agency's seal or the agency head's signature.
An original letter on agency letterhead from the department specifying the need to travel armed.
Completion of the Transportation Security Agency's training program, "Law Enforcement Officers Flying Armed."
But I believe these regulations should be relaxed and law officers should be allowed to carry their weapons on passenger flights. And here's why.
When I was a Federal Air Marshal (FAM), two things were always in my mind: judgment and precision. Judgment as to when and who to shoot; precision in shot placement.
A gunfight in an airplane is much different from a gunfight on the ground. The consequences of a mistake are much graver. If a shot goes astray, it's not just one or two innocent bystanders getting hurt or killed-it can be 400 innocent passengers. That's why the FAM program once had the highest shooting qualification standard in federal service.
No more. After 9-11, training has fallen by the wayside. The training academy itself once consisted of 14 weeks of specialized training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. Now if you have any previous law enforcement experience, the program takes one week. If you don't have any experience at all, it takes five weeks.
I served proudly as an Air Marshal, but I know we had our limitations. In the 17 years of the program's existence, no Federal Air Marshal has ever arrested anyone. Nor shot anyone. Nor displayed a weapon to control a situation.
That doesn't mean the FAM program didn't do anything. There's clear evidence that Air Marshals have been a significant deterrent to hijackings and acts of terrorism. However, the inexperience of most Air Marshals is a compelling argument for letting police officers carry their weapons into the cabins of airliners. The average big city patrol officer arrests and controls more people in a day than the entire FAM program has done since its inception.
Remember the two primary elements of using deadly force on an airliner: judgment and precision. You can make a good case that the average patrol officer may have better judgment as to when and who to shoot than the average Air Marshal. Judgment is the strong suit of experienced police officers. A patrol officer has to exercise judgment on the street every minute of his shift. And the judgment that's needed on an airplane in today's world is deciding who to shoot and when. That's well within the capability of a police officer-after all, don't you have to do that everyday?
The FAA training program for police officers flying armed is a Powerpoint presentation of eighteen slides. The emphasis in the presentation is on letting the aircraft crew handle crisis situations, since they've been trained to deal with them.
But they weren't trained to deal with the hijackings of Sept. 11. An experienced street officer with his sidearm and a willingness to do battle could have saved thousands of people that day.
And since the powers that be are so intent on putting bodies with badges and guns on board, and since they've tossed out the specialized training once required of Air Marshals, maybe we should call for them to let people with guns and badges and proven judgment onboard.
People like you.
Marcus Wynne is a former Federal Air Marshal, Team Leader, and Tactics Instructor for the Federal Air Marshal Program. He is the author of the novel "No Other Option," and a frequent contributor to POLICE.