View From Lodi, CA: Guns, Pilots and Politicians

Last month, I visited Guatemala City. On the
first morning in town, I took the car to the
local gas station for a fill-up.

Five or six armed guards patrolled the station. Some
carried guns in holsters; others had rifles and

From the gas station, I went to the shopping mall. At
the mall, dozens of pistol-packing guards roamed the
parking lot and strolled up down the aisles of the
various shops. Everywhere in Guatemala–stores, dentist
offices and doughnut shops–armed guards are plainly in

These guards aren`t retired military men. Nor are
they educated and trained specialists. These are young
men, most of whom have never been to school, down from
the mountains to the big city to earn $125 a month.

I asked a local official what would happen if,
through some misunderstanding, I were shot and killed.
The official replied that, since I am an American, an
investigation would be opened. But, the official quickly
added, the investigation would be closed before the
day`s end. The guard would keep his job and the incident
would quickly fade from view.  

To leave Guatemala and return to the U.S. where a
heated debate about whether airline pilots should be
armed is quite a transition.  

Frankly, I don`t see the issue. The pilots want to be
armed and the public supports the pilots. The

House of Representatives, by a vote of 310-113

favors the pilots and the people.

What more is there?

According to

U.S. Senator Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.)
and Chairman of
the Senate Commerce Committee, guns in the cockpit are a
bad idea. President

George W. Bush,
of all people, is said to agree with

In May, Hollings introduced S. 2497 which would
require the doors leading to the cockpit to remain
closed and locked during flight. Hollings referenced El
Al as an international airline that locks doors, doesn`t
permit firearms in the cockpit and hasn`t had a
hijacking in 34 years.

According to Hollings, the U.S. should follow
Israel`s example. But there is much more to the El Al
policy that Hollings didn`t mention.

First, the

pre-flight security at El Al
is much more extensive
than anyone can imagine. Returning from Guatemala, my
carry-on luggage was opened three times: at the ticket
counter, the security checkpoint and at the gate. This
level of fastidiousness is what awaits those who really
want to copy El Al`s system. Expect three hours to

Although El Al pilots are no longer armed, the
airline has taken

several other steps
to thwart terrorism. El Al has
placed hardened "man trap" double doors to the cockpit,
installed hardened bulkheads and other classified
defensive equipment.

El Al places an armed guard at the front of the
aircraft. The guard has orders to shoot to kill if
warnings to stay back are not followed. Several armed
air marshals are strategically seated throughout the
cabin. They too are instructed to shot to kill.

So while the El Al pilots may not have guns, as many
as five or six trained marksmen on every flight are
prepared to kill terrorists.

Hollings opposes guns because he fears that gunfire
could shatter windshields that would lead to someone
being sucked out of the aircraft. But, according to
Captain Duane Woerth, President of the

Airline Pilots Association
, guns would be aimed
backwards toward the door thus minimizing the
possibility of bullets going through the window.

And, adds Woerth, if the in-flight situation has
reached the crisis point of terrorists in the cockpit
about to take control, then any other outcome — including
gunfire — is preferable.

If, after all is said and done pilots are permitted
to carry guns, then those like Senator Hollings who are
opposed still have options. For those who think pilots
are nothing more than "cowboys" or "renegades," as
Hollings has suggested, they can drive, take the bus or
train or take a cruise ship.

Traveling by any means is a crap-shoot. What
legislation would have protected the Phoenix-bound Miami
passengers from the

allegedly drunken
Air West pilots Thomas Cloyd and
Christopher Hughes?

And armed pilots are nothing new. In the 1970s,

Captain Stephen Luckey,
Chairman of the National
Flight Security Committee of the Airline Pilots
Association, was trained by the FBI to use a weapon
during flights. A rash of hijackings plagued the airline
industry at the time.

I`m backing Captains Woerth and Luckey.

As for Hollings, he can go Greyhound.

Joe Guzzardi [email
him], an instructor in English
at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly
column since 1988. It currently appears in the

Lodi News-Sentinel