Will Gun Measure Threaten Amtrak Terror Attacks?

Just how much clout does the gun lobby have on Capitol Hill? This week may prove to be a crucial test: A House-Senate conference committee is about to take up a massive transportation-funding bill that is pitting advocates of gun rights against security-minded members worried about the threat of terrorist attacks on Amtrak trains. Tucked into the measure is a controversial National Rifle Association-backed amendment that would cut off $1.5 billion in subsidies to Amtrak unless the federally backed national passenger-train company reverses its post-9/11 security policies and permits train passengers to travel with handguns and other firearms as part of their checked luggage.

The idea of allowing guns on trains—something Amtrak banned after 9/11—passed the Senate by an overwhelming 68 to 30 margin last month and was hailed by the NRA at the time as a vindication of Second Amendment rights. But since then, the measure, sponsored by GOP Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, has raised bipartisan alarm among House Homeland Security committee members, especially because Amtrak, according to its own account, is largely unable to check baggage (only 30 percent of stations can) and doesn't have the method to secure checked luggage in the same way airlines do. As company representatives wrote, checked bags are "significantly easier to access in transit or at individual stations than the secured baggage compartments of passenger aircraft." (Airline passengers are allowed to check unloaded firearms.)

"Deadly terrorist bombings of commuter trains in Madrid in 2004 and the 'commando-style' terrorist attack on a major rail station last November in Mumbai have emphasized the importance of passenger rail security in large urban areas," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and Rep. Peter King, the panel's ranking Republican, in a recent letter to House conferees urging them to reject the amendment. According to Thompson and King, Amtrak has twice revised and enhanced its security policies in recent years after the Madrid and Mumbai attacks revealed a "significant firearm specific threat" from terrorists to passenger trains.

(In last year's Mumbai attacks, which Indian authorities have blamed on the Pakistani-based terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba, 10 terrorists struck in 13 places in the city, including the city's main railway station, and killed 174 people. In the railway part of the attack, two of the terrorists indiscriminately fired at passengers with AK-47 assault rifles.)

Thompson and King argue that the new measure could make Amtrak similarly vulnerable. But NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam calls those arguments "bogus."

"This isn't something new," he says. "Amtrak would be reverting to its pre-9/11 policies." He also says that the Senate amendment wouldn't really apply to the heavily traveled Northeast corridor between Washington and New York, where checking luggage is largely not an option. It would only affect long-distance travelers such as those who take the train south to Florida for the winter, he argues, and "those people want to be able to defend themselves and their families … without being harassed by Amtrak."

The fate of the measure is now up to the House-Senate conferees; while the Senate version contains the "guns on trains" amendment, the House version has no such provision. Arulanandam says the NRA is "working the issue hard." But the ultimate call may be up to House leaders, like Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who have to decide whether to heed the warnings of the chamber's homeland security experts—or please the gun lobby.