With the recent enactment of a federal policy that allows its passengers to ride the rails with their guns, Amtrak created nearly 150 “bullet trains” overnight. The change, which went into effect December 15, was mandated by legislation passed in December 2009 and lifts the weapons ban Amtrak put in place in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
If any of Amtrak’s 74,000 daily passengers wish to pack heat on their trip, however, they must follow a set of guidelines that closely mirrors the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rules for flying with firearms: Guns, which must be unloaded, are only allowed in checked bags and have to be locked in a hard-shell case. Larger guns (shotguns, rifles) are stored in a secure cabinet within the baggage car, but smaller guns (handguns) can be packed within a regular checked suitcase. Passengers are required to give Amtrak at least 24-hour notice if they plan on checking firearms and/or ammo and must fill out a declaration form on the day of their trip. Guns still aren’t allowed anywhere on Amtrak buses. The policy is spelled out in its entirety on Amtrak’s Web site.
The legislation was authored by Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) who lauded the policy’s implementation two weeks ago. “This provision protects Americans’ Second Amendment right and is a small but important step in eliminating bias against gun owners,” he said in a statement. Gun Owners of America, the lobbying group instrumental in getting the ban shot down, similarly saw the decision as a fair one: “Those who travel by train who wish to bring a firearm to their destination for self-protection will be able to do so,” said GOA lobbyist John Velleco. “It’s also good news for hunters and others who have a need to transport personal firearms while traveling.” The National Rifle Association also gave the new law its stamp of approval.
Amtrak, explained spokesperson Steve Kulm, spent the last year beefing up security measures to make sure its passengers and employees remain safe with weapons nearby as they travel over 21,000 miles of routes across 46 states. Around $2 million, he said, was spent on installing secure storage sites at stations that offer checked baggage service (like Santa Barbara’s downtown station, but not the Goleta stop), modifying 142 baggage cars “to improve and secure firearm transport,” and implementing a training program for Amtrak employees.
While Kulm said he and the Amtrak higher-ups are confident that all proper precautions have now been taken to ensure the safety of all on board, the government-owned corporation initially pushed up against the idea of rescinding the nearly decade-long ban when Senator Wicker submitted his revised legislation to the Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development (THUD). Amtrak’s gun ban was enacted shortly after 9/11 and then ratcheted up to include the prohibition of all weapons after the rash of train bombings in Madrid, London, Mumbai, and Moscow in recent years.
In a letter sent to the subcommittee’s chairperson in September 2009, Amtrak’s Board of Directors chairperson, Thomas Carper, made it clear that major security system overhauls and upgrades were needed in order to make the transition a smooth one, and that comparisons to the airline industry and its handling of firearms were unfair. “Unlike the airline industry, Amtrak has no system in place for a uniform system of screening for weapons,” he wrote. “At airports, all checked baggage including firearms are separately screened by TSA in secure loading areas of an airport.” Carper also expressed worry that baggage cars were, at that point, accessible by passengers, and that Amtrak has no secure loading areas as baggage is often loaded on the same platform where passengers board.
Kulm said that while Amtrak has made it so passengers can’t get into baggage cars and implemented the use of locked transport carts in loading areas, there is currently no system in place to confirm the contents of a checked gun case. In fact, he admitted, cases aren’t opened by security personnel on a regular basis, only if one is part of a random screening.
This fact worries Toni Wellen and other members of the Santa Barbara-based group Coalition Against Gun Violence. Claiming that, in general, the “ease of access to firearms has proven over and over to be an issue of serious concern,” Wellen said it’s problematic that Amtrak doesn’t have a way to verify what kind of firearm a person says he or she has in a gun case. “The individual could be transporting a dozen assault weapons, one .50 caliber sniper rifle (both of which are illegal in California), or a hunting rifle,” she said. “This individual could be a terrorist, a felon who purchased the weapons illegally, a person with a mental health history, or just a guy going hunting.” There are just too many “what ifs” for her and the group to be comfortable with the policy, Wellen summed up.
Many gun-toting Santa Barbarans, it seems, are unaware of Amtrak’s new provision. Calls to a number of nearby gun stores as well as Winchester Gun Club yielded no one who had heard of the lifted ban. Initial reactions, though, were positive. Rick Dodge of Dodge City Shooters Supply said the new policy only makes sense, explaining that taking a rifle on the train on the way to a hunting ground or competition is no different than bringing a set of golf clubs on vacation. Rick Helfrich of Goleta Valley Gun and Supply was mainly indifferent, saying he thinks the news won’t create any real stir or affect passengers one way or another.
But once confronted with details of the new law, Amtrak commuters did express some strong sentiments. Santa Barbara resident Guy Mariano spoke to The Independent at the downtown station as he waited for his train to Oakland and said the lifted ban “could be very problematic.” Concerned less about possible terrorist threats, Mariano said he’s more worried about unhinged people getting their hands on a gun while in a train. “It happens,” he said. “People go nuts.”
Susannah Dahill, on her way to Salem, said she’s already had a hair-raising experience with an on-board weapon and doesn’t want another. She said she was recently travelling on an Amtrak train when a “kook who had a gun” tried to rob a meal car. Dahill said she didn’t learn what had happened until later in the day. The train had abruptly stopped between stations, she explained, and the gunman was whisked away in handcuffs.
Oakland resident Pete Latta, on his way back home, said he believes in the right to bear arms, but that “there’s already an excessive number of guns available out there.”
“Really,” he asked, “why would you need to take your gun on a train?”