Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - Frustrated by the Transportation Security Administration's delay in arming airline pilots with guns, four members of Congress said Thursday they want the agency to quit dragging its feet.
"We're not interested in any excuses from here on out. This is too important to our national security," said Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), who introduced legislation that would require TSA to speed up the process of arming pilots.
Bunning was joined by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who is sponsoring a companion bill in the House. But it was the Kentucky senator who had the harshest words for TSA.
"They'll get the message or they'll lose their money for the program," Bunning said. "We'll put it somewhere where it will get the job done."
Congress passed the federal flight deck officer program in November 2002 in hopes of making airline pilots the last line of defense against hijackings. A year later lawmakers added cargo pilots to the program.
But, as a CNSNews.com investigation found, TSA has made the program cumbersome and discouraging for pilots. According to Wilson, less than 1 percent of the 40,000 pilots who signed up to participate have been trained.
Pilots have complained about the way federal flight deck officers must transport their firearms - in lockboxes, except inside the cockpit; TSA-administered background investigations, psychological exams and the release of personal information; and the remote location of the program's single training facility in Artesia, N.M.
"To have an agency that is unelected, that is sitting on legislation like this and not doing it is absolutely wrong," Boxer said. "In essence, TSA is turning its back on a law that is the law of the land."
Added Bunning, "It's not up to them to like the legislation. It's up to them to implement the legislation that the Congress passed."
When asked to respond Thursday, a TSA spokeswoman requested that CNSNews.com submit written questions. The agency had not responded to the inquiry as of Thursday evening.
The lawmakers at Thursday's gathering on Capitol Hill stressed that TSA already has the authority to properly implement the law. But they said that clearly isn't happening, given the complaints from pilots and the small number who have successfully completed the training.
"This could be done administratively by TSA," Wilson said. "All we're trying to do is really push what should already occur."
The bill, called the "Cockpit Security Technical Corrections and Improvement Act," makes a number of changes that would speed up the process of arming pilots and tear down the barriers that turn off pilots from ever applying.
Not only would pilots have to be trained within 90 days, but it would also allow pilots with a military or law enforcement background to be armed immediately.
The TSA would have to open more training facilities and use private training facilities for recurrent training, according to the bill. The agency would be responsible for picking up the tab for the pilots' travel expenses.
The legislation would also end the use of lockboxes, allow pilots to carry a gun outside the cockpit and let them pass through security like other law enforcement officers. Pilots could sue the TSA if the agency violates the law.
"As airline pilots, our fundamental mission remains the same: get our passengers, our crew, our cargo safely to its destination," said David Mackett, president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance. "It is unfortunate, but nevertheless true, that fulfilling that mission now requires new tools, including an armed cockpit."
Representatives from the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, Astar Air Cargo and the Law Enforcement Alliance for America were also on hand to offer their support.
Bunning, citing an urgent need for the legislation, promised to take the matter up with the Senate Commerce Committee immediately.
"It is a gaping hole in our national security, particularly for those who fly on a daily basis or a weekly basis," Bunning said. "And we're all, the people here in this Congress, on that schedule. So it isn't just for us, but it's for all the daily commuters and fliers that we plug this big hole."
And for someone like Boxer, who flies frequently to her home state of California, the issue transcends her typical alignment with gun-control proponents. Both the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms and Gun Owners of America are strong proponents of the legislation.
"We're not just going to sit quietly by," Boxer said. "This whole program was meant to make sure that what happened on 9/11 never happens again. This is a plan that is a very important part of that never happening again. And they're not executing it. And we've pretty much had it."
See Earlier Story:
Thousands of Pilots Won't Fly Armed, Blame TSA (Jan. 15, 2004)
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