Arm the Passengers

The recent controversy over arming airline pilots against a
possible repetition of the 9/11 atrocity misses a crucial problem that
makes arming pilots relatively ineffective: terrorists would know in
advance where the guns are, and be able to game against that.

Let’s say you are a terrorist executing a hijacking. You know the pilots
are armed. Then here are your tactics — you send the pilots a message that
you will begin shooting cabin crew and passengers, one every five minutes,
until the pilots throw their guns into the main cabin. Just to make sure,
you split your gang into an A team and a B team. After the pilots have
thrown out some guns, you send the A team into the cockpit. If the pilots
resist, the B team kills more people.

Sky marshals can be taken out in a similar way. Your B team, armed
with knives, breaks cover and announces the hijacking. The sky
marshals (if there are any present; they’re now flying on less than 1%
of planes, and can’t be trained fast enough for that figure to go up
significantly in the foreseeable future) break cover. Now your A
team, armed with guns, breaks cover and disposes of the sky marshals.
Game over.

Anyone who thinks either scenario can be prevented by keeping
firearms off-board should put down that crack pipe now.
Tiger team exercises after 9/11 have repeatedly
demonstrated
that the new, improved airport security has had
effectively zero impact on a determined bad-guy’s ability to sneak
weapons past checkpoints — it’s still easy. Despite government spin,
there is no prospect this will change; the underlying problem is just
too hard.

For terrorists to be effectively deterred, they need to face a
conterthreat they cannot scope out in advance. That’s why the right
solution is to arm the passengers, not just the pilots.

Now, as a terrorist, you would be facing an unknown number of guns
potentially pointed at you from all directions. Go ahead; take that
flight attendant hostage. You can’t use her to make people give up
weapons neither you nor she knows they have. You have to assume
you’re outnumbered, and you dare not turn your back on
anyone, because you don’t know who might be packing.

The anti-gun bien pensants of the world wet their pants at
the thought of flying airplanes containing hundreds of armed
civilians. They would have you believe that this would be a sure
recipe for carnage on every flight, an epidemic of berserk yahoos
blowing bullet holes through innocent bystanders and the cabin walls.
When you ask why this didn’t happen before 1971 when there were no
firearms restrictions on airplanes, they evade the question.

The worst realistic case from arming passengers is that some gang
of terrorist pukes tries to bust a move anyway, and innocent
bystanders get killed by stray bullets while the passengers are taking
out the terrorists. That would be bad — but, post-9/11, the major
aim of air security can no longer be saving passenger lives. Instead,
it has to be preventing the use of airplanes as weapons of mass
destruction. Thus: we should arm the passengers to save the lives of
thousands more bystanders on the ground.

And, about that stray-bullet thing. Airplanes aren’t balloons.
They don’t pop when you put a round through the fuselage. A handful
of bullet holes simply cannot leak air fast enough to be dangerous;
there would be plenty of time to drop the plane into the troposphere.
To sidestep the problem, encourage air travelers to carry fragmenting
ammunition like Glaser rounds.

Think of it. No more mile-long security lines, no more obnoxious
baggage searches, no more women getting groped by bored security
guards, no more police-state requirement that you show an ID before
boarding, no more flimsy plastic tableware. Simpler, safer, faster
air travel with a bullet through the head reserved for terrorists.

Extending this lesson to other circumstances, like when we’re
not surrounded by a fuselage, is left as an exercise for
the reader…

Blogspot comment

4 thoughts on “Arm the Passengers

  1. Problems:
    - At high enough altitudes, I guess that planes *are* balloons, however I can’t prove it. I’d like to get reliable data about this, but vehement assertions are not proofs.
    - A gun can be purposefully used to crash a plane, and can do it in a matter of seconds, before the terrorist can be shot. Even if it’s possible to bring a gun in a plane, it’s not wise to make it easy. Anyway, now that 9/11 happened, there is very little hope for terrorist to take control of plane; the only thing they can expect, now that passenger are aware of what happens if they surrender, is to destroy the plane while flying, not using it as a rocket.

    A simpler solution would be to seal the communication between the pilots and the passengers. If the pilots have no way to let a passenger come in the cabin, there is no point into taking an hostage to get the cabin open. Pilots should not endorse any inside-securtiy responsibility; let it to a steward or a sky marshall who hasn’t the power to compromise the flight-related security.

  2. Your mistake here is partly that you don’t realize that most people would still not take the guns given the opportunity — they wouln’t consider the necessity. Therefore, your proposal simply doesn’t go far enough: We would need to require that all passengers carry guns, else we give a monopoly to the terrorists who remembered to bring theirs. Hell, give them all grenades — I’m sure the impeccable logic of mutually assured destruction will sort everything out.

  3. To Fabien:
    Airplanes are rigid structures, that do not depend on atmospheric pressure to maintain integrity. A few 1-6 inch holes aren’t likely to compromise the planes ability to fly. The main concern is decompression, which is very hard on the passengers. Dropping altitude quickly can generally be expected to solve that.

    I’m curious how you can be sure a gun can be used to crash a plane “in a matter of seconds” if you don’t know enough about airliner designs to determine for yourself whether they might pop like a balloon at higher altitudes? The only methods of significantly damaging an airliner with a firearm that I can think of would require hitting a small area, to damage a hidden component. And most flight related components on an airliner have redundant backups whose systems are routed through different parts of the plane than the primaries.

    Firearms are not a serious risk to an airplane unless they are being used to coerce or kill the pilots. Explosives on the other hand could be very deadly.

    To the best of my knowledge airliner pilots in flight are considered to be legally responsible for the plane, the crew and the passengers. Somewhat akin to the captain of a ship. Sealing the pilots away from the rest of the crew and the passengers would to some degree prevent them from acting on that responsibility. Also, a pilot needs to communicate in some way with the stewards so that he can be made aware of emergencies that might require him to change the flight plan. If the stewards can communicate with him, the terrorists can and they can still hold the passengers hostage to coerce the pilot into flying the plane wherever the terrorists want to go.

    To Gimmefive:
    It’s not a mistake, because the concept is more effective when the terrorist is sure only 2-5 of the 100 or so passengers is armed. He can’t know which ones, so he has to treat every passenger as an armed enemy. It’s the same reason concealed carry reduces crime, the criminals don’t usually know who’s packing heat.

    And your comment about grenades and M.A.D. is just facetious and weakens your arguments even further.

    To ESR:

    Keep up the good work. It’s always nice to see someone putting this sort of stuff in writing without making themselves look like a complete wack-job.

    PS. I just read The Cathedral and the Bazaar (2nd Ed, I think). Very good stuff, helps me get excited about diving into programming and embracing the Hacker mindset.

  4. 2 quick examples of “major” structural failure that did not destroy the plane. Aloha 737 and United 747. Both lost HUGE areas of skin and still landed safely.

    Plus good ole Mythbusters spent some time on this “problem”, and answered it as Busted.

    TSA should be nicknamed T&A – if the name fits!

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