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Bill to arm pilots goes to Senate

By Sridhar Krishnaswami

Washington JULY 11. The bill to arm pilots in commercial airliners has now moved to the United States Senate after it was passed in the House of Representatives in an overwhelming manner on Wednesday, by a vote of 310 to 113. But the bill, seen in some quarters as an anti-terrorist measure, faces a tough battle in the Senate and chances are that it may even fumble in the Committee stage.

The bill will allow guns for some 70,000 pilots, provided they agree to undergo training. Originally, the idea was to have a programme for a period of two years and would have involved only 2 per cent of the pilots community. Law makers tossed out these provisions. The subject of guns in the cockpit has been debated intensely since the time of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 with a good many of the opinion that pilots should focus on flying and not be worried about security. That, many felt, should be in the hands of air marshals.

The bill to allow guns in the cockpit has a lot of distance to travel. The identical language requirement of the House and Senate aside, the measure would have to be signed into law by the President, George W. Bush. On Wednesday, the White House expressed opposition to the idea. But the immediate focus is on the fight in the Senate with powerful lobby groups like the Pilots and Flight Attendant Unions along with the National Rifle Association (NRA) backing the move.

These groups have made it known that they will be actively lobbying Senators. The NRA has gone to the extent of saying that its endorsement of candidates for the fall election depended on their support to this particular measure. In the House, the bill had the backing of the Transportation Committee. But in the Senate, it will have to clear the Commerce Committee whose Chairman, Ernest Hollings, has opposed the legislation. It has to clear the Committee if the bill is to get to the Senate floor. But Republican backers of the provision are arguing that the Committee stage requirement is not a problem.

"A free-standing bill is not the only way to pass something in the Senate'', the Republican Senator, Robert Smith, remarked. Backers of the bill in the Senate are confident that pressure will be so great that the Committee will have to consider the bill. The other perception is that support for the bill could be mustered from 60 Senators, meaning that a lone opposition will not suffice. Finally, there is always the prospect of the bill being tagged on as an amendment to another legislation. In the face of all pressure, Senator Hollings is hanging tough. "It's counter-productive to allow weapons to be brought on the planes. We should lock the cockpit door, create a cabin that's absolutely secure, and that ends the threat'', a spokesman for the Senator remarked.

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