Published April 2, 2003, in The Investor's Business Daily
Can U.S. Be More Secure By Arming Off-Duty Cops?
By John R. Lott Jr.
The terror alert is currently at Orange, or "High Alert." We've been through this before.
But Iraq's statement over the weekend that it will use "any means to kill the enemy both in Iraq and the enemy's home" and the president's speech on Monday make this danger appear all the more real.
Security, both government and private, has been expanded. From nuclear power plants to tourist sites to national borders, more guards have been hired, more training conducted.
This security hasn't come cheap.
The new Homeland Security Department this year has a budget of $38 billion, twice the previous year's budgets for the same agencies now incorporated in the department. Total costs borne directly by local and state governments are unknown, but are surely substantial.
I am not going to try to debate whether this money should be spent or whether it should be spent on other policies. But what is clear is that there are inexpensive ways to help increase security.
One of the more discussed alternatives has been to let pilots have guns. If all else fails, the pilots can serve as a last line of defense and keep terrorists from taking control of the plane.
Why Not Arm Pilots?
Concerned with the safety of their passengers and themselves, pilots have happily offered to undergo the necessary training and perform the necessary duties without any compensation. Many feel so strongly about it, they would probably pay for the opportunity.
With calls on Monday before the new presidential commission on the 9-11 attack for more "cops on the beat," that is just one example of what can be done.
Legislation before Congress would let off-duty and retired police officers carry guns when they travel.
Over 8,000 state and local police departments in the U.S. employed about 450,000 full-time sworn police officers in 2000.
Adding retired officers who have served at least five years would add millions more.
Yet these officers can't carry their guns when they travel outside their states.
Forty-four states let civilians carry concealed handguns, but somehow we can't trust police to carry a gun when they travel to even these states. Some states don't even let their own officers carry their guns off-duty.
The federal government advises us that we should be observant and report strange events to the police. But there is not always time to call 911 and wait for the cavalry to arrive.
Here we have a ready supply of police who are well trained and who may already be there at the scene.
This isn't a cure-all, and these officers won't be everywhere. But it is one small part of the solution.
Israel provides plenty of extreme examples during just the last year of armed citizens stopping terrorist attacks ranging from bombings to machine gun attacks. In some cases, hundreds, even thousands, of lives have been saved.
Take a particularly dramatic case last May, when an armed Israeli shot a car bomber who was trying to ram his car into a nightclub filled with hundreds of people.
Or another case a year ago where a woman shopping at a grocery store shot a bomber just before he was able to set off his explosives.
Here in the U.S., in March the Senate Judiciary Committee overwhelmingly passed the legislation letting off-duty and retired police carry guns.
But Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., fought the measure, claiming it would "do great damage to the effort of state and local governments to protect their citizens from gun violence." He argued the law would also "undermine the safety of law enforcement."
It is not clear why these officers would pose any risk to others when we trust them to carry guns on duty.
Indeed, University of Georgia professor David Mustard found that right-to-carry laws letting citizens carry concealed handguns reduced the rate that officers were killed by 2% per year for each additional year the laws were in effect.
Right now, many targets are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. With budgets stretched thin, we can't protect them all with full-time security.
Whatever the opposition to civilians carrying guns, the arguments against off-duty or retired police doing it seems irrational. We trust these same officers with our lives in similar circumstances all the time.
Hopefully, these off-duty officers will never be called upon to stop terrorism. Even if that never occurs, there is still the benefit of having police (whom we don't even have to pay) stop other crime that occurs in their presence.
John R. Lott Jr. a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the just-released "The Bias Against Guns. "