If the pilots flying the planes hijacked on Sept. 11 had been carrying guns, could they have thwarted the hijackers?
Probably not. But that didn't stop the House of Representatives last week from voting overwhelmingly to allow airline pilots to carry guns in the cockpit.
The use of firearms under high stress is at best difficult. Movies and stories of drive-by shootings foster the false belief that it's easy to hit a moving target with a pistol. Jean Claude van Damme and Steven Seagal routinely dispatch villains with firearms, often shooting two pistols tilted sideways while rolling on the ground or flying through the air.
But in real life, hitting a target especially one as wily and movable as a human being is almost impossible. The Washington-based Violence Prevention Center says, "Trained law enforcement officials have only an 18 to 22 percent hit ratio in armed confrontations." Having shot a pistol or two in my day, I'd agree.
The issue is skill. To hit a target, one must train hard to develop the "muscle memory." Such memory is gained by performing moves more than 3,000 times, which creates the ability to execute an action with relatively little thinking.
Army Special Forces soldiers attend shooting schools that last for weeks, shooting many thousands of rounds in an effort to achieve a modicum of success in hitting a target. There soldiers find it hard to hit targets from seven feet away. It is even harder to draw a pistol and hit a moving target while you are moving and under the stress of combat. Add uniforms, close quarters, and distractions such as sound and light, and you have a real physics problem on your hands.
After gaining the skill to shoot someone, you must train repeatedly to maintain that skill. Those same Special Forces soldiers usually train two to three times a week to maintain the muscle memory necessary to engage targets.
Now, imagine a pilot who has not had such training being forced to defend himself (while flying a sophisticated plane) from an armed attack. The likelihood of the pilot hitting a target is quite small especially if two or more trained terrorists conduct the attack. The stress of high-stakes combat in the confines of an air cabin could be debilitating to all but trained professionals.
And remember the passengers. The chance that a pilot misses an attacker and hits a passenger is probably greater than that of a pilot hitting a hijacker and thwarting his attempt. Some would argue that a wounded or dead passenger is worth the risk, since a successful hijacking might kill all the passengers. This may be true.
But consider: This mile-high gun battle takes place on a flying fuel tank. A pilot might actually hit a terrorist, only to have the bullet ricochet off a hijacker's bone and hit a tank containing many thousands of pounds of combustible fuel.
I understand pilots' concerns. I understand the House's desire to improve air safety. But the answer is not to arm the pilots; they simply do not have the time or resources to become combat marksmen.
For my money, I would rather the person flying my plane stick to flying the plane, behind the protection of a bulletproof cockpit door.
Maj. Roger D. Carstens is a US Army Special Forces officer at Ft. Bragg, N.C., and a member of the Council for Emerging National Security Affairs. His views do not necessarily reflect those of any US government entity.