The story about the airline pilot whose pistol went off accidentally — a foreseeable outcome of idiotic storage requirements imposed by bureaucrats — will be analyzed to death by other bloggers, but the posts by Paul Huebl (via Arms & the Law) and Steve H. are particularly good.
Huebl points out that the government bureaucrats who came up with the storage/holster scheme didn’t merely ignore but went out of their way to ignore reasonable advice from law enforcement officials who are experienced with weapons. And I think that almost everyone who has commented has pointed out the absurdity of treating pilots, whom everyone trusts with the lives of hundreds of passengers, as being somehow too irresponsible to use independent judgment in handling simple weapons they have been trained to use.
I don’t think bureaucratic stupidity is the central problem. It’s more likely that the bureaucrats are responding to strong incentives that aren’t visible to outsiders — otherwise, why not take the apparent easy way out by following the cops’ suggestions? Probably, given the way bureaucracies function, and the hostility of TSA and DOT management to armed pilots, and the aversion of airline companies to lawsuits that might be brought if pilots misused their weapons, and perhaps also (as a commenter on Steve’s post suggested) lobbying by vendors of “safe storage” equipment for pilots’ firearms, the easy way out really is to make it as cumbersome and hazardous as possible for pilots to arm themselves. What better way for the bureaucratic decisionmakers and airline executives to minimize their liability while nominally accommodating political demands for armed pilots? Never mind that pilots and passengers, the people who have the most at stake, are mainly either strongly in favor of letting pilots be armed or are neutral.
Dangerous storage of guns on commercial aircraft is a consequence of involving government in an area that should have been left under the control of the people who are most accountable. If airlines could set their own policies they could allow armed pilots to follow sensible procedures, or forbid pilots from being armed. In either case an airline could follow its best judgment about the risks and benefits of armed defense against hijackers. An even better solution would be to leave the arming of pilots to airline discretion and to provide airlines with legislative immunity against lawsuits brought in cases where pilots use their weapons in good faith.
Too much of the public debate about responses to terrorism is driven by fear of lawsuits and by bureaucratic agendas that have nothing to do with national security.
UPDATE: David Foster’s 2002 post on this topic is well worth reading.