Only Guns Can Stop Terrorists
It's harder to victimize armed citizens.
BY JOHN R. LOTT JR.
President Bush yesterday unveiled a plan to tighten airline security, ranging from employing the National Guard at airports to place more marshals on flights. Those are important steps, but they won't be enough, especially since no one knows where the terrorists will strike next. The only adequate response is to encourage more ordinary, responsible citizens to carry guns, as Israel has done.
Screening at airports, while important, will always be inadequate; terrorists will always figure some way to circumvent the controls--for instance, by bribing airport employees. Strengthening cockpit doors is probably a good idea, but given current airline design it may create dangerous differences in air pressure between the cockpit and cabin. In any case, the door must be opened sometime, to allow pilots to go to the bathroom or get food.
The marshals program is more promising. Empirical research by Bill Landes at the University of Chicago found that between a third and a half of the drop in airplane hijackings during the 1970s could be attributed to the introduction of armed U.S. marshals on planes and an increased ability to catch and punish hijackers.
But to put just one marshal aboard every daily flight in the U.S. would require at least 35,000 officers--far more than currently work for the FBI, Secret Service and U.S. marshals combined (17,000). And one marshal might not be enough to foil a whole gang of hijackers, of the kind used by Osama bin Laden. Clearly it will take a long time to deploy enough marshals.
There are things we can do in the meantime. There are about 600,000 active state and local law enforcement officers in the U.S. today. They are currently forbidden from bringing their guns on airplanes. That should change. They should even be given discount fares if they fly with their guns. Most pilots have also had military experience. The request of their union to arm pilots should be granted; this is what El Al has done for a long time.
Fears of having guns on planes are misplaced. The special, high-velocity handgun ammunition used on planes packs quite a wallop but is designed not to penetrate the aluminum skin of the plane. Even with regular bullets, the worst-case outcome would simply be to force the plane to fly at a lower altitude, where the air pressure is higher.
The use of guns to stop terrorists shouldn't be limited to airplanes. We should encourage off-duty police, and responsible citizens, to carry guns in most public places. Cops can't be everywhere.
In Israel, about 10% of Jewish adults have permits to carry concealed handguns. To reach Israel's rate of permit holding, Americans would have to increase the number of permits from 3.5 million to almost 21 million. Thirty-three states currently have "right-to-carry" laws, which allow the law-abiding to obtain a permit if they are above a certain age and pay a fee. Half of these states require some training. We should encourage more states to pass such law, and possibly even subsidize firearms training.
States that pass concealed handgun laws experience drops in violent crimes, especially in multiple victim shootings--the type of attack most associated with terrorism. Bill Landes and I found that deaths and injuries from multiple-victim public shootings fell by 80% after states passed right-to-carry laws.
Passing right-to-carry laws might even deter terrorist attacks. True, some terrorists are suicidal, but they still want to cause maximum carnage. They know the "return" on their terrorism would rapidly diminish to the vanishing point if faced with gun-wielding "victims." Mr. Lott is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "More Guns, Less Crime" (University of Chicago Press, 2000).
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