PEOPLE often enter a public toilet with a sense of trepidation; after all, who knows what horror might await behind the cubicle door. Even so, a passenger on a service between Manchester, Britain, and New York got a nasty surprise.
Earlier this month an American air marshal accidentally left her loaded gun in the loo of a Delta Air Lines plane bound for JFK. According to the New York Times, the weapon was found by a passenger, who handed it over to the flight’s crew. The crew then returned it to the officer. The Times says that the air marshal did not report her oversight to authorities for several days, as is required, and had been assigned to other planes in the meantime. Using unimpeachable logic, one former air marshal explained to the paper: “You can’t have inept people leaving weapons in a lavatory. If someone with ill intent gets hold of that weapon on an aircraft, they are now armed.”
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The idea of placing armed air marshals on commercial flights is a divisive one. We have discussed the issue on this blog several times before, most recently after the revelation that Korean Air flight attendants had been tasering unruly passengers. Compared with giving potentially lethal weapons to cabin crew—who, no matter how well trained, will have been selected primarily for their pleasant demeanour (and often their demureness) and not their marksmanship—arming licensed law enforcement officers is clearly preferable. But that is not the same as saying it is a good thing.
Marshals are rarely required to discharge their weapons. In 2005, two officers shot dead Rigoberto Alpizar, who had fled from an American Airlines plane onto the air bridge at Miami, when the marshals inferred he may have had a bomb (he didn’t). As far as Gulliver can tell, that is the only time a shot has been fired. Still, that does not necessarily mean marshals are redundant. For obvious reasons, the Transportation Security Administration, the agency in charge, does not disclose their prevalence, but it is thought there are only a few thousand air marshals in America. But while it is unlikely that there will be an officer on any given flight, it is possible that some potential terrorists may have been dissuaded from targeting a plane because of that slim possibility of meeting armed resistance.
There are, however, more compelling reasons to keep all guns off planes. Air marshals are among the most highly trained firearms operatives in law enforcement. Still, in such a confined and crowded space as an airline cabin, the chances of unintended casualties are high. And as the Alpizar incident shows, officers’ judgment in choosing when to fire is not bullet proof. (Neither are plane windows, though marshals use lower velocity bullets to mitigate the risk of blowing a hole in the plane.) The chance of killing innocent passengers, whether they were the intended recipient of the shot or not, makes the whole affair too dicey.
But the bigger risk of taking guns on a plane is that it then houses lethal weapons that it previously didn’t. Even if you believe that leaving a gun in the toilet is a once-in-a-lifetime cock-up (although, as one whistle-blower disclosed, this is not the first time it has happened), the risk of a criminal dispossessing an officer and creating more effective carnage is real. As one officer admits on the Paste Travel website, undercover marshals can be smoked out. Many, for example, will intervene when a drunk gets rowdy. That makes them vulnerable to a ruse whereby a passenger pretends to be obnoxious. Asked whether they would always step in like that, the officer says “The majority of guys will probably get involved … it’s a boring job. You kind of want to get involved.” That is a worrying sentiment indeed.
Clarification: This post has been amended to remove a reference to the number of air marshals in America falling.