A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Guns for Pilots


Q: Is it true that Obama is dropping the federal safety program that allowed pilots to carry guns?

A: No, the program is not being ended, according to the Transportation Security Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and the largest airline pilots union. In fact, TSA says the program is being expanded. The claim comes from a Washington Times editorial that has been removed from the paper’s Web site.

A March 17 Washington Times editorial is the source of this claim. The editorial said that "President Obama is quietly ending the federal firearms program, risking public safety on airlines in the name of an anti-gun ideology." The program, established after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is called the Federal Flight Deck Officers program, and it provides training to commercial pilots and certain other crew members in firearm use, allowing those who are approved to carry a gun in the cockpit and defend themselves against a violent act.

Update, March 25: The Washington Times has removed the editorial from its Web site, and the paper’s associate publisher has called the claim an "error." The Times’ news pages – which, like other newspapers, are run separately from its editorial pages – published an article on March 23 debunking the assertions made in the editorial. The article, headlined “No plans to nix armed-pilot training,” included quotes from the director of the Federal Air Marshal Service, the president of the Air Line Pilots Association and the head of a lobbying organization for the armed pilots program. All said the program wasn’t being ended. The article also noted that the editorial pages recently came under new management and quoted the paper’s associate publisher, Richard Amberg, as saying: “The Editorial Department has been in transition these last few weeks. We’re aware of the error and are investigating what happened so we can learn from the mistake and not repeat it." We have updated our short answer in light of this information.

The editorial also stated: "The Obama administration this past week diverted some $2 million from the pilot training program to hire more supervisory staff, who will engage in field inspections of pilots." John Lott, the author of the editorial, told us that the source for these claims is three pilots who came to him saying that this was the message they had received from the Transportation Security Administration. There was no source within the Obama administration, he says.

But the TSA says the program isn’t being shut down at all. A major union for airline pilots also has said the claim "couldn’t be further from the truth."

TSA spokeswoman Lauren Gaches told FactCheck.org that the TSA "continues to actively recruit, train and deploy new Federal Flight Deck Officers, and TSA recently opened a new recurrent training facility in Atlantic City." Gaches adds that another training facility "is set to open shortly in Texas and others are planned for the future."

Lott, a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland who writes editorials for the Washington Times on the side, says he contacted the TSA for comment at 10 a.m. the day before the editorial ran. But while the administration kept promising to get back to him, he says, the TSA didn’t do so before his deadline. "I would’ve loved to have them tell us on the record," Lott says, adding that "maybe the TSA is going to change their policy back to what it was going to be."

He says he went back to the pilots after the TSA said the program wasn’t being closed, and his sources "were adamant about what they had told me before." Lott writes in the editorial that the pilots couldn’t speak on the record "for fear of retaliation" from the TSA and that pilots could face criminal charges if they cause a "loss of confidence" in the program.

So, at this point it’s the pilots’ word against the TSA’s, we asked? "Right," Lott says.

TSA spokeswoman Gaches says she does not know what the basis could be for the assertion that $2 million was diverted from training. "In the past fiscal year, no funds have been transferred from operational program areas to fund additional administration employees" under the program, she says.

FOX News also has reported that the Air Lines Pilot Association International, which represents more than 50,000 pilots in the U.S. and Canada, issued a statement saying that the editorial "couldn’t be further from the truth."

FOX News, March 18: "ALPA representatives met with TSA executives this afternoon and were told in no uncertain terms that TSA embraces the FFDO program, that there are no plans to reduce or restrict its growth, and that in fact the agency fully intends to grow and expand the program," the statement read. "Government representatives acknowledged that the program needs additional funding to achieve these goals, and that they are actively seeking same."

We have contacted ALPA to receive our own copy of the statement. We also contacted the White House, which put us in touch with the Department of Homeland Security. DHS Deputy Press Secretary Amy Kudwa echoed the TSA’s statements, saying: "The transfer of funds is, in fact, inaccurate, and there is no move to end the program."

– Lori Robertson

Sources

Interview with Lauren Gaches, spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, 19 March 2009.

Interview with John Lott, author of Washington Times editorial, 20 March 2009.

Interview with Amy Kudwa, deputy press secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, 20 March 2009.

Editorial: "Guns on a Plane." Washington Times, 17 March 2009.

Miller, Joshua Rhett. "Federal Officials Deny Report That Obama Seeks to End Pilot Gun Program." FOXNews.com, 18 March 2009.