Starting December 15, Amtrak will allow passengers to travel with unloaded guns on trains. The new policy, a reversal of a ban in effect since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, is backed by conservatives and the National Rifle Association, and blasted by critics as costly and unsafe.
"Once this takes effect," said Daniel Vice, senior attorney for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, "you would be able to check, for example, a dozen AK-47s onto an Amtrak train -- and once they're on there, the baggage car's not secure like a cargo hold of an airplane."
Starting in two weeks, train travelers will be able to check handguns, shotguns, rifles and starter pistols at stations that offer checked baggage service, including the stations in New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
The guns must be unloaded and in approved locked hard-sided containers and passengers must declare their firearms and notify Amtrak 24 hours in advance. In addition, reservations that include firearms must be made over the phone.
Andrew Arulanandam, Director of Public Affairs for the NRA, says that anyone who thinks the new provision compromises the security of passengers is "making a bogus assertion."
"We think it's reasonable for people who choose to travel by rail to be able to transport a firearm for whatever lawful purpose," said Arulanandam.
Senator Roger Wicker, the Mississippi Republican who proposed lifting the ban, says he believes the original ban was unnecessary to begin with. "I think it was an overreaction based on I think some incorrect attitudes on the part of Amtrak and their leadership after 9/11 and frankly I think it was anti-gun, anti-hunter, anti-sportsman and unfair."
According to Amtrak spokesperson Steve Kulm, the company has spent approximately $2 million updating their security measures in anticipation of the policy change.
"The important thing here is this is not a carry on," said Kulm. "We had to make modifications to 142 baggage cars to provide a secure, safe location for the firearms as well as…make modifications of many stations to ensure their safety and security."
Kulm also said that Amtrak would continue to use police officers at stations and onboard their trains as well as canine explosive detection teams as part of their security measures.
"We believe that these firearms will be safely and securely locked while they are in Amtrak custody," he said. The lifting of the ban was attached to an appropriations bill that was passed in December 2009.
But Rep. Bennie Thompson, D.-Mississippi, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, who opposed the lifting the ban last December, said he opposes it still. Said Rep. Thompson, "Because of this unnecessary and arbitrary requirement, Amtrak has been forced to spend $2 million that could have gone to more urgent security priorities. Ending this ban reverses nearly a decade of conscientious security efforts by Amtrak to protect its passengers, employees, and infrastructure with the limited means at its disposal -- and I sincerely hope that we do not soon come to regret its hasty and unexamined passage."