Arming TSA


December 2, 2013

IN THE WAKE of the shooting at Los Angeles International Airport in November, among the questions being asked is this one: should TSA screeners be armed?

My answer is no, they should not be. Readers of my articles and my book already know of my disappointment with many of TSA’s policies and protocols. Let me say up front that I am not using this incident as just another opportunity to criticize the agency and arbitrarily oppose a policy, and by no means do I wish to downplay the seriousness of the shooting. But the question of arming of TSA workers has come up before. It ought to be opposed for good reasons:

First, citizens need to realize that TSA screeners, despite what their blue shirts and silver badges might imply, are not law enforcement officers, and do not have police authority — such as the power to arrest. Deputizing and training even a limited number of these employees to carry and use deadly weapons is granting the agency a power it neither has neither earned nor requires to fulfill its mission. It also would be very expensive. That expense would be passed directly to the taxpayers, or perhaps to the airlines, who in turn would raise fares to cover that cost.

Although what happened at LAX was tragic, the idea that armed screeners would result in a safer work environment for TSA employees, or a safer travel experience for passengers, is dubious. What happened at LAX was a random tragedy at the hands of a lone and presumably deranged gunman — the sort of attack that could easily have taken place at a shopping mall, movie theater, etc. That the man is believed to held a grudge against TSA specifically is not a good enough reason to go handing out guns to screeners at large. The response to every mass shooting in this country should never be simply to arm more people, be they government or employees or anyone else.

Meanwhile if we are going to increase the TSA budget, there are better ways of spending that money.

We should start by speeding up and streamlining the airport screening process — a project that would entail taking screeners away from public view in the terminal and re-training them to work behind the scenes. When it comes to protecting passengers from criminals and terrorists, concourse screeners do have a role to play, but mostly it is one of last resort. The more critical work belongs to law enforcement and TSA working together backstage, so to speak: inspecting luggage and cargo, reviewing passenger data, and foiling plotters before they reach the airport. Chances are, once a perpetrator has made it to the terminal, he or she has already figured out a way to fool whatever safeguards we have in place. Meanwhile, holding up lines so that guards can confiscate harmless pointy objects and shampoo bottles wastes our time, wastes our money, and does nothing to make anybody safer.

I’d also suggest deploying more TSA workers overseas — in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America — where they could assist local security staff in the protection of US-bound aircraft. It is much more likely that a bomb or other attack would originate from somewhere overseas, yet our focus is relentlessly domestic. We’ve got high-tech equipment and body scanners at regional airports in Ohio, while US carriers are often forced to hire third-party contractors to assist with passenger and luggage screening in areas of the world where the threat is statistically much higher.

It’s true the 9/11 attacks were launched domestically, but the failure to foil the plot had nothing to do with concourse screening. The loophole the 19 hijackers exploited was not a loophole in airport security, but rather a loophole in our mindset — that is, our understanding of what a hijacking was, and how it would be expected to unfold, based on decades of precedent. What weapons they brought along for the job mattered little; had boxcutters been contraband, they could easily have improvised other weapons once on the aircraft. The men were not relying not on hardware at all, but on the element of surprise.

To its credit, TSA seems to realize most of this already. It took an awfully long time, but the agency is beginning to understand the limitations and challenges of its role on the front lines. Its “PreCheck” program is a smart idea,* and many TSA employees are already busy doing that important work back stage. Let’s keep that trend moving in the right direction. Arming screeners would be expensive, while accomplishing little or nothing in the name of safety. And if TSA wants to earn and keep the respect of the American traveler, strapping on guns, in an increasingly militarized society already awash with arms, isn’t the way to do it. The way to do it is through more effective and efficient security.


(* Well, I like the concept behind it. What I don’t like is that PreCheck travelers — those not pre-approved by the airlines — are required to pay a fee to qualify. Rather than charging Americans money to bypass the what’s broken, how about fixing it instead?)

Photo composite by the author.

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37 Responses to “Arming TSA”
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  1. Nathan Barnett says:

    First correction, there is no such thing as a TSA “agent”. Look closely at their metal badges. It says officer! We don’t call police officers “police agents”. It is a negative preception in the mind of the public created by the media.

    Second, when TSA Officers do what they are trained to do at the highest level they are providing incredible amount of safety to the flying public.

    Third, should we expect the pilot to do repairs on jet engines?

    • Tomaj says:

      They are only called “officers” (and only have badges) because in the beginning they realized they are not police offices and shouldn’t have that title or the badge. Especially the badge (which at first was merely printed on the shirt. I have a big problem with their badges). They have been called agents for quite some time. They do not go through nearly the training that law enforcement people do and thus they don’t desrve the title, but they have found that people respect them more if they call themselves offices and have a badge. I think they deserve neither, and we need to remember that at first, they didn’t think so either.

  2. db cooper says:

    say that to that cartoon , trump…

  3. DPeters says:

    Ab-so-f*&%ing-lutely NOT!

    These people have NO law enforcement authority, NO law enforcement training, NO legal grounds to stand on. They want to be the Gestapo of today’s age, a special secret above the law thug agency and act that way now. Give them guns and forget about it…they will fully be a thug organization.

    As a person who has both worked in law enforcement and aviation, these people (many of whom are good people, don’t get me wrong) aren’t competent in providing any kind of REAL security, but perform security theater every day of the year.

    Either put REAL cops at the checkpoint, or forget about it entirely. When the TSA’s number 2 guy at the airport I worked at, had the qualification of a restaurant manager (literally) with no law enforcement background…the TSA is an illegitimate and incompetent government entity.

  4. Paul Woodcock says:

    Problem is, the TSA agents are not all trustworthy. Some of them do end up acting like complete jobsworths just because they can. I would not trust them with a gun as well!

    Besides, they will need a LOT more training before being let loose with anything more than a water pistol. Besides, their job is to keep stuff off planes. Dont need a gun for that. Thats the police’s job.

  5. Jerry Noland says:

    Do not arm the TSA screeners. Former burger flippers should not be armed. Any armed presense in the area should be DHS 1811 or 1810 Officers.


  7. Travis says:

    No, TSA agents should not be armed. They’re too stupid to use common sense when screening passengers, so imagine what would happen if they were armed!!

  8. Kyle says:

    I always assumed the TSA WAS armed.

    As far as I’m concerned it was a BIG mistake to not charge the airlines for 9/11 and other air rage attacks. It wasn’t the airport’s fault that screeners were incompetent.

  9. Kyle says:

    This is actually not a new question. There was an incident in May 2000 where at the JFK airport an armed man went past National Airlines Security which happened to have it’s checkpoint just 50 feet from the gangway. The man waved his gun at the screener and the screener called security which has to respond within 5 minutes.

    The man locked himself into the cockpit and demanded the plane to be driven to random destinations which I don’t remember off the top of my head.

    After several hours of negotiations the pilot was released from the cockpit unharmed and the suspect surrendered at 3:30am and was later charged with Air Piracy.

    I think that that incident would’ve been avoided by having trained Air Marshals on random flights and trained police officers to do the baggage handling because if you disarm security that doesn’t mean the BAD GUY will be disarmed.

  10. Eirik says:

    Unless there are some terrorists whos main goal is to have a direct shootout with the TSA, I dont really see what the benefit would be.

    What scares me the most (to the degree Im scared, that is) is if someone finds out how easy it is to…oh, never mind.
    There are nutheads out there, I dont wanna be sued for planting a seed.

  11. Wastingourtaxtollars says:

    I thought airport security has been armed since……well hijackers have thought of bomb plots.

    Instead of arming TSA we should get rid of TSA and hire the police to do random inspection where sometimes people are inspected and other times they aren’t doing techniques such as studying face behavior and suspicious looking people.

    That will throw terrorists off the loop trying to find a search pattern that doesn’t exist.

    Did you know that there is an interesting history of cockpit intrusions since the early 90s not reported on the nightly news?

    Here is the webpage explaining it.

    My favorite one is this one where on a US Domestic flight a fllight attendant was thrown over several seats!

    December 16, 1997: A 200-pound male passenger was physically restrained after trying to break down the cockpit door of a U.S. Airways flight from Los Angeles to Baltimore. A female flight attendant, who had tried to block the assailant’s entry into the cockpit, sustained serious injuries after he literally threw her over several rows of seats.

    Another US Domestic one is where the cockpit intruder thought a pilot provoked him.

    October 27, 1998: A passenger aboard a British Airways flight threatened a flight attendant and then began beating on the cockpit door with his fists. The passenger later claimed that a pilot had provoked him. (Anyone else hear the Outer Limits theme music?)

    August 5, 1999: A drunken passenger attempted to break into the cockpit of a Singapore Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo, Japan. He was physically restrained from doing so by several passengers and male flight attendants. Not happy at being diverted from his perilous intent, the deranged man shouted, “Tonight, everybody will die!” as he tried to open an emergency exit door.

    • Eirik says:

      “…doing techniques such as studying face behavior and suspicious looking people…”

      Consider the fact that approx 25-30% is suffering from fear of flying and as many as six million flights per year are avoided due to this. When those people finally show up at the airport after weeks of preparations and numerous prayers, I can only imagine how pale and suspicious they look ๐Ÿ˜‰

  12. Colorado says:

    The TSA Pre-Check does not require that you pay a fee (there are other similar programs that do require a fee). What is required is that you are a frequent traveler on an airline that subscribes to it and that the TSA approves you for pre-check based on your travel history and their internal records. I know – I’ve been in the program since early this year. I did not apply, just one day I had pre-check approval on my electronic boarding pass.

    • Patrick says:

      This isn’t fully correct. TSA and the airlines pre-approve certain travelers for membership, at no cost. All other passengers are welcome to apply as well… for a fee.

      One of the reasons I know this is because * I * wanted to be Pre-Check approved, for those (frequent) times when I travel on my own, off-duty. In fact, because of the way the system is set up, airline employees can’t really qualify for Pre-Check at all.

  13. Msconduct says:

    Iโ€™d also suggest deploying more TSA workers overseas โ€” in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America โ€” where they could assist local security staff in the protection of US-bound aircraft.

    What?! I seriously do not think so. At the height of post 9/11 paranoia, we had US-run security for flights leaving NZ for the States and that was infuriating. America does not run the world, whatever it might think, and the rest of us do not need it invading our sovereignty being “helpful”, thanks very much. Not to mention that TSA agents are so notorious many of us route around the US to avoid them, so the last thing we want is having them in our own countries. Keep them to yourself.

    • Patrick says:

      What I was recommending is that TSA be deployed overseas to aid in the screening of * American-operated * flights departing to the United States. This could be handled in such a way as to avoid any sovereignty issues. As it is, airport security in many countries served by US carriers is substandard, and our airlines are forced to hire third-party contractors to assist with screening.

      I am told that most of those third-party contractors are in fact trained by TSA. It might be that it’s very difficult to persuade foreign governments to accept a US government entity performing a security mission on its soil, and so this private, third-party route is used instead.

  14. Jim Houghton says:

    Patrick, I may not be paying attention, but I see no hue and cry for TSA screeners to be armed. The notion that ” armed screeners would result in a safer work environment for TSA employees, or a safer travel experience for passengers,” is way, far beyond dubious.

  15. flymike says:

    Arm them? I don’t think they should even have badges – it just goes to their tiny heads.
    To be a TSA agent you need high school GED, and take a 40 hour training course. That’s it.

  16. Ian says:

    I do not trust that the money will be spent to ensure that TSA agents will be properly trained to make arming them safe. Perhaps this is due to the ones who did not repack my tent pegs after opening my baggage, or the one who freaked out in Miami who found I was wearing a money belt {foils pickpockets and was sold perhaps 100 meters from her work station]; in any case, training seems to be minimal now. Hundreds have also been found to be stealing. Are these the people you are giving guns to?

  17. JR says:

    This business about arming TSA ignores the fact that we do, today, have armed security people at airports. They’re called police, and while I don’t have the numbers handy, I am willing to bet police were present in the terminal that day. LAX airport has its own police force with a staff of over 1100 people.

    • David Kazmierski says:

      A good point…and one to remember if and when the argument for more guns or more armed employees at airports is brought up. As is often the case with incidents of this nature, trained and armed personnel were present. It is also worth remembering the dismal and horrifying accuracy of trained police when firing at armed—or, increasingly, unarmed—targets.

  18. Tod Davis says:


    I was more hoping for an article about the Boeing freighter that accidentally landed at the wrong airport

  19. Eric says:


    Your comment of “The response to every mass shooting in this country should never be simply to arm more people, be they government or employees or anyone else.” seems a little quick to discredit the idea.

    Consider the Sandy Hook shooting; what might have happened had there been one or two armed guards stationed at the school? Would that not have helped stop the killer before he took as many kids lives? Certainly it would have done more than posting a “Gun Free Zone” sign (the school had one posted), having a locked door to the school (the gunman shot his way in), background checks (the guns didn’t belong to the gunman; he took them from someone else), etc? How could “arming more people”, like a guard in this example, not have helped save lives?

    Think about this; when you go into a bank and see an armed guard, or into a jewelry store and there is an armed guard, you think nothing of it. But we say we shouldn’t provide the same level of protection to our kids?

    All this is to counter your claim that simply adding armed people shouldn’t be a response to a mass shooting. Actually, it should be a minimum level of a response, I believe. Passing ridiculous additional legislation to make it even more illegal than it already is to kill people (think “double-secret probation”) won’t stop a mass-shooting event while it is occurring; a “good guy” with a gun can…but that would mean arming more people.

    • Simon says:

      I fully disagree. Patrick was spot-on.

      Calling for arms every time somebody shoots up a public place is a knee-jerk reaction.

      After years of making sure society is armed to the teeth and police is defunded across the board (because public spending has been declared evil in itself), the solution obviously has nothing to do with arming even more people and places.

      Guns off the streets. Properly fund and train law enforcement. Fight poverty. The best ways to protect school children (and everybody else for that matter).

      • Eric says:

        Got it. Let me get my magic wand out…here we go… POOF! All illegal guns are now history. POOF! We now have unlimited budgets to “properly” train our law enforcement agencies. POOF! Poverty is no more (though I don’t recall the motive for ANY mass shooting being poverty…not a single school shooter…not the Colorado theater gunman…not the two recent military installation shootings…not a single case).

        Actually, you said that the solution did not lie with arming any more people…I guess no additional cops then..?

        It’s strange; I legally conceal carried just about everywhere I go, and yet I’ve never participated in a mass shooting. You seem to concur that me being barred from being armed on the campus of a school is a good thing, because I would be adding to the problem.

        So you really stand by your assessment that it’s a good thing that an armed guard was not at Sandy Hook (because he would have been an additional armed person)? Increasing welfare (thus “fighting poverty”) would have stopped that incident, but an armed good guy to protect the kids from the psychopath would not..? Utterly incredible.

        • David Kazmierski says:

          Oh, do go away back to the Soldier of Fortune message boards or wherever you spend your time when not out patrolling the world with your hollow-point erection.

          • Rod Miller says:

            “POOF!” Gosh, Eric, thanks for the impressive strawman act.
            True, there are no panaceas on offer. But at least sanity IS an option.

            Which countries have their citizenry armed to the teeth? Let’s see: Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen … and the USA. The gun-related death toll in the US is 32,000 per year and climbing. Big population you say? OK, let’s look at it in proportional terms: 10.3 per 100,000 people in 2011 (latest available figures). Britain? 0.25. Netherlands? 0.46. Hell, even tribal/mafioso Italy was only 1.28 (2009 latest).

            So please. Just having the goddamn things lying around is enough to get playful kids killing themselves or each other, or people shooting a loved one under the impression it’s a burglar. This stuff happens all the time … in the US.

            The proof of the pudding is in the eating, pal.

        • Eric says:


          Why couldn’t you or David answer why having an armed guard at Sandy Hook would have been bad? Maybe if your kids had been there, you would feel differently about doing something concrete to protect people instead of passing more useless laws criminals ignore. Instead, David replies with a creepy post about an erection. I guess if an armed guard had been at Sandy Hook the day of the shooting, David would have walked up to him and told him that.

          Your numbers about per capita guns and crime also leaves out countries like Israel (also one of the most-armed societies in the world per capita), which does not suffer the same mass shootings that we have here, and yet you can see photographs for yourself of young IDF members walking around in public, in street clothes with their assault rifles strapped to their backs. How does that fit your template of lots of guns equating to uncontrolled mass shootings?

          Speaking of straw man arguments, you’re confusing mass shootings with negligence of leaving loaded guns laying around that children can access.

          Okay, I think we’ve hijacked poor Patrick’s aviation web site enough, so to cut this conversation off now, I’m not replying to anything else that might be posted here (in fact I won’t even check again), as this conversation won’t convince anyone of anything, and it probably makes Patrick cringe that we’re discussing something not aviation related.

          • Rod Miller says:

            I don’t think Patrick minds. He raised the issue after all.
            Nor do I care whether you ever read this.

            “How does that fit your template of lots of guns equating to uncontrolled mass shootings?”
            Hell, I live in Switzerland — you know, the country with the citizen’s army and an automatic weapon under ever adult male’s bed, etc. I see people walking around with the things every day. Nevertheless, the level of gun-nuttery is way lower here than in the US (though unfortunately not zero). But enough cases of nuts and just plain accidents have made the military authorities a lot more careful about ammunition. They, unlike the US authorities, have demonstrated an ability to learn from reality.

            I was weaned on American TV, so I know that somebody gets shot about every five minutes if things are peaceful (500 per second if Rambo’s on). It’s a question of culture, or cultural obsession. The US just has a bad case of it is all. Read Michael Herr’s “Dispatches” (or watch Dr Strangelove) for a much more eloquent illustration than I could ever offer.

            But facts are facts: Americans blow each other away at an eye-popping rate. And the more guns you have, the more it happens.

            “Speaking of straw man arguments, youโ€™re confusing mass shootings with negligence of leaving loaded guns laying around that children can access.”

            I suggest you look up the meaning of strawman.
            Homo sapiens is negligent. It’s gonna happen, again and again.

            “Maybe if your kids had been there …”
            This is a variant of the pro-death-penalty argument that goes “If the victim had been your child you’d be saying hanging is too good for the bastard!”
            Well, yeah, Eric, that’s why we have elected governmnent and properly constituted courts, rather than a chaotic and barbarous blood-feud system. Good thing that if the victim is my child that it ISN’T up to emotion-ridden little ol’ me to decide what to do about it, but rather up to duly elected legislators.

            But guess what? Sandy Hook is in the USofA. Not in Finland. Not in Israel. Not in Switzerland.
            And that’s no coincidence.

          • ungarata says:

            i’m late to the party here but i agree with Eric’s post that having armed security at schools would be a deterrent to those who wanted to go on a shooting spree there. i ddidn’t see any replies to him that countered that – Rod’s post about him not being there doesn’t apply – Eric never said an armed parent – so no Rod your post doesn’t make sense about a barborous system or whatever – we’re talking about armed guards or police. can you give a reason why having armed police at schools would cause more shooting sprees? i think that’s the point and you haven’t presented any counterpoint to that only some off-topic reply about courts, etc. i think you’ve asserted that by adding more guns to any situation is insanity so how do you stand by that if it’s adding an armed guard to protect a school?

            and…i looked up what a straw man is and it says “a weak or imaginary opposition (as an argument or adversary) set up only to be easily confuted”…that seems to be what you said about leaving guns out for kids to kill themselves with instead of what the topic was about, which was adding more armed people would cause more mass shootings. i think you got the definition wrong, and Eric got it right.

          • Michael says:

            Let me remind you that firearms are made with one and only one goal: to kills.

            The only entity that is really interested in gun ownership is gun manufacturer (remember to follow the money).

            IMHO every person who elects to own a firearm is deranged to begin with.

    • Hilton says:

      Didn’t they have “good guys with guns” at the Navy docklands massacre?

  20. Cooper says:

    TSA already has a law enforcement arm, so this seems a bit redundant. TSA Police are occasionally present at employee, cargo and catering entrances to airport property. The average traveler rarely sees them, as they are almost always found in sterile/secured areas. I sincerely doubt the LAX incident will lead to armed TSA screeners; that type of speculation is fueled almost entirely by the false-flag-tinfoil-hat crowd.