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Senior House GOPer: We Shouldn’t Force Amtrak to Allow Guns on Board

1:49 PM EDT on October 13, 2009

Rep. Peter King (NY), the House Homeland Security Committee's senior Republican, has joined panel chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) in urging congressional leaders to abandon a pending provision that would threaten Amtrak with loss of federal funds if it did not allow guns in checked baggage.

image3282315x.jpgRep. Peter King (R-NY) (Photo: CBS News)

The Amtrak provision, attached to the Senate's version of the 2010 U.S. DOT spending bill with the support of all 40 GOPers and 27 Democrats, gave Amtrak until April to devise a screening method that would allow passengers to carry firearms.

But King and Thompson, the lower chamber's senior overseers of rail security, warned that the ban risks compromising the safety of Amtrak passengers. In a letter sent Friday to lawmakers now merging the House's spending bill (which did not include the Amtrak language) with the Senate's, the duo wrote:

The requirements of [the Senate provision] reflect a lack of understanding of the characteristics and security concerns unique to passenger rail systems in general, and Amtrak in particular. Unlike the airline industry, Amtrak lacks the capacity to "check" baggage; currently, only 30 percent of Amtrak stations can carry out this function. ... The minimal effect on overall ridership and significant benefits to safety and security make supporting a weapons ban on Amtrak trains a practical, risk-based approach to securing these systems.

Amtrak began implementing a total ban on weapons after the March 2004 terrorist attacks on passenger rail stations in Madrid and continued to tighten its rules after the "'commando-style' raids of railway stations" that occured during the siege of Mumbai in November, King and Thompson noted.

Forcing Amtrak to rip up its existing plans for use of homeland security grants in favor of trying to shield baggage cars where firearms might be held "would waste precious federal resources used by Amtrak to carry out basic operations and important security functions," the lawmakers added.

Despite the considerable differences between Amtrak's security challenges and those of airlines -- which can more easily store checked firearms in areas inaccessible to passengers -- media coverage has depicted the Senate-passed provision as a simple attempt to give "riders rights comparable to those enjoyed by airline passengers."

The final decision on the guns-on-Amtrak language won't be known until the final version of the 2010 U.S. DOT spending bill is released, likely later this month. Still, King's presence on the letter gives opponents of the Senate provision bipartisan cover for removing it.

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