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by Dave Kopel

The Obama administration’s hostility toward firearms is endangering the safety of everyone who flies—and everyone who does not. Although the administration wasted trillions of taxpayer dollars to reward its political allies, the administration is now attempting to gut the armed pilots program, supposedly to save money.

According to federal law, in order for a pilot to carry a firearm in the cockpit, he or she must receive training through the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) program. While the program is already failing to train any additional pilots, the administration is proposing a 50 percent funding cut, which will nearly destroy the program.

Thanks in part to the NRA, huge bipartisan majorities in Congress passed the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act, which became law on Nov. 25, 2002. Unfortunately, the Bush administration implemented the program in an extremely restrictive manner, and the Obama administration is about to make things much worse.

Pilots who are U.S. citizens and who fly passenger flights, private charter flights or cargo carriers can apply for the FFDO program. The week-long training takes place at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, N.M. Before being accepted into the training program, pilots must undergo extremely rigorous physical and psychological examinations. Once a pilot has passed the program, he or she is deputized as a federal law enforcement officer—a Federal Flight Deck Officer. The FFDO’s law enforcement authority comprises only the aircraft flight deck and does not include the power to arrest.

Graduates of the program are given a .40-caliber semi-automatic Heckler & Koch USP (universal self-loading pistol).

The cost of the classes and the gun are about $4,800 per pupil, paid by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Federal Air Marshal Service. However, participation in the program is still expensive for individual pilots, who have to give up a week of work and pay for one week’s lodging and meals, and all their travel expenses to the training center. Pilots must also pay the cost of firearm requalification, which is required twice a year. Taking all these expenses into account, over a six-year period the typical FFDO spends $10,000 of his or her own money to obtain and maintain qualification.

For the public, the FFDO program is a bargain. When you average the taxpayer-paid cost of the training over a typical pilot’s number of flights, it costs the taxpayers only $15 per flight to have an armed pilot guarding the cockpit.

Contrast this with the vastly more expensive Federal Air Marshals program. Air marshals are full-time federal employees whose job consists of being an airline passenger while carrying a gun. The Air Marshals program costs about $3,300 per flight.

Armed pilots cover five times as many flights as do air marshals. The result is strong deterrence and, in case of an attempted hijacking, strong security against a hijacker gaining control of an airplane and being able to use it as a weapon against targets on the ground. Terrorist chatter confirms the deterrent effect of armed pilots.

In fact, armed pilots are one of the most cost-effective counterterrorism programs in existence. Perhaps the only thing that is even more cost-effective is the widespread ownership and carrying of firearms by law-abiding citizens. At zero cost to the taxpayers, these citizens can deter Mumbai-style attacks on large crowds and would provide the first response if an attack did take place.

The first FFDO pilots graduated from their training program on April 19, 2003; fittingly, the date is the anniversary of the 1775 battles of Lexington and Concord. Then, as now, armed Americans are the first responders against foreign enemies who want to destroy our freedom. Since April 2003, more than 10,000 of America’s 120,000 pilots have been trained.

But since 2004, the budget for the FFDO program has never been increased. At current funding, it can accommodate only 48 pilots per week, so pilots may have to wait a long time for their training.

The truth is, the FFDO program is so poorly funded that no new FFDOs are being trained. There is no money for the extensive background checks that the TSA insists applicants undergo, ignoring the fact that all commercial pilots have already undergone a thorough background check. So as the trained pilots retire, the number of FFDOs dwindles, while 700 pilots who want the training are being shut out.

To make things much worse, the Obama administration’s budget for fiscal year 2013 (which begins October 1, 2012) proposes a 50 percent cut of the $12.6 million in the already shoestring FFDO training.

Testifying before the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee on Feb. 15, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano defended gutting the ffdo program. Her explanations were dangerously clueless.

Rep. Chip Cravaack, R–Minn., is himself a former Federal Flight Deck Officer. He asked Napolitano, “Is a Federal Flight Deck Officer the last line of defense for our traveling public?”

Napolitano replied, “I think the armed [locked] cockpit door actually is.”

The reinforced cockpit doors on today’s airplanes are a great idea. But cockpit doors, like any barrier, can be breached. It is foolish to pretend that locks and barriers are always impervious. The better approach is defense in depth; to have back-ups in case any single form of defense is thwarted.

Besides, during a typical flight the cockpit door must be opened several times for pilots to be handed their meals or to use the restroom.

Napolitano complained that the armed pilots program “is not risk-based.” By this she apparently means that FFDOs carry guns regardless of whether TSA officials have estimated in advance that a particular flight might be at greater risk of hijacking.

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