The gun lobby appears poised to crush its foes once again in the showdown over whether to allow firearms on Amtrak trains.
In a development that has alarmed homeland security experts and gun control groups alike, a National Rifle Association (NRA)-backed amendment that would reverse post-9/11 security policies and permit railway passengers to pack guns and ammunition in their Amtrak luggage seems to be speeding rapidly to congressional passage.
A new, slightly tweaked version of the so-called Wicker amendment—named for GOP Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi—was negotiated Tuesday night that will delay actual implementation of the "guns on trains" provision until late next year. But hopes of blocking the measure entirely now seem doomed. "If you'll excuse the pun, it looks like the train has left the station," said one congressional staffer who has been working feverishly (and unsuccessfully) to try to stop the provision.
The prospect of permitting guns on passenger trains has aroused especially strong concerns among counterterrorism specialists.
Brian Jenkins, a top U.S. government counterterrorism consultant, notes the rash of terrorist attacks on trains in recent years, such as the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the 2005 London subway bombing, last year's Mumbai attacks (which included an assault on the city's train station) and the Russian train bombing just two weeks ago .
"If you look at the number of attacks, and the number of foiled plots, public transportation has become a terrorist killing field," said Jenkins, a RAND Corporation analyst who also oversees security studies at the Mineta Transportation Institute, a U.S. government-funded research organization.
Given that trend, he said, permitting guns on Amtrak trains is a "dumb idea" and could exacerbate what has become a "serious terrorist threat."
But as Declassified reported last month, the Senate voted 68 to 30 votes to adopt an amendment that would cut off $1.5 billion in federal subsidies to Amtrak unless the national passenger corporation relaxes its security polices and allows passengers to pack guns in their checked luggage.
The amendment, sponsored by Wicker and attached to a massive transportation and housing appropriations bill that the House is due to take up on Thursday, is not an open-ended invitation to brandish firearms while strolling to the club car. It would not allow passengers to have their guns with them at their seats. Travelers would be required to pack the firearms in their checked and stored luggage—a restriction that means it wouldn't apply to most travelers on such heavily traveled routes as the Northeast corridor between Washington and Boston, where passengers generally don't store their luggage. Instead, the impact would mostly be on longer, overnight trips.
Moreover, a new version of the bill developed by House Appropriations Committee staffers would delay implementation for one year while Amtrak and the Transportation Security Administration develop procedures to implement what it calls a "new checked firearms program." For example, passengers would have to give Amtrak 24 hours' notice that they plan to check a bag with an unloaded firearm, starter pistol, or ammunition.
But Amtrak has pleaded to members of Congress that permitting guns on trains would still create a host of costly logistical and security issues (such as securing baggage cars that are now vulnerable to intruders, including terrorists, who might try to gain access to the guns). And Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, says he's been thwarted at every attempt to impose tighter security measures on the proposal, such as one that would bar any passengers from bringing their guns on Amtrak if they are on the FBI's terrorist watch list.
"They didn't give a reason," said Thompson when asked what explanation he was offered by the conferees for the rejection of his proposals.
In fact, the reason isn't hard to discern, according to congressional staff members. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer are loath to risk the ire of the NRA given the large number of "blue dog" Democrats from Southern and rural districts who fear the gun lobby's wrath.
"The reality is there is a pro-gun majority in the House," said one Democratic leadership staffer (who asked not to be identified because of political sensitivities). "Unfortunately, if we took that provision out, it might jeopardize the entire bill."
The NRA, for its part, sees the matter differently. "One of our most cherished rights as Americans is the right to travel," Chris Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist, wrote in a blog entry on its Web site called "Fighting the Good Fight." "Whether it's heading out on a dream hunt, or just visiting family in another state, many of us travel with firearms ... But for almost a decade, those who travel by train have been prohibited from bringing firearms along at all."
The Wicker amendment, Cox added, was designed to correct this injustice.
So the concerns of security experts like Jenkins notwithstanding, barring some sudden reversal by the House Democratic leadership, when the transportation bill hits the House floor this week, it now looks like the NRA will get its way.