Dec. 9, 2009 — -- On Tuesday night Congressional negotiators reached an agreement that the final version of a transportation bill would include an amendment that restores the right of Amtrak travelers to pack their firearms in checked baggage.
National Rifle Association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said his organization was pleased. "I think it's a major step forward," Arulanandam told ABC News.
Members of the House Homeland Security Committee had previously expressed concern that allowing guns on Amtrak would heighten the risk of terror attacks like those on trains and train stations in Europe and India.
After 9/11, Amtrak had barred passengers from bringing guns on trains. This Sept., Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., attached an amendment to a transportation funding bill that made $1.5 billion in Amtrak funds contingent on once again allowing train travelers to transport firearms in checked baggage. The Wicker Amendment passed the Senate by 68 to 30. In a statement Wednesday, Wicker called in the inclusion of the amendment in the final version of the transportation bill "an important victory for sportsmen and gun owners across the country."
In Oct., House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and ranking minority member Peter King, R-N.Y., sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee raising concerns about an increased risk of terrorism, citing the 2004 attack on commuter trains in Madrid and the attack on the Mumbai train station in November 2008. The Mumbai assault involved firearms.
On Wednesday, Thompson told ABC News that the gun provision in the bill could "create a serious -- and needless -- security vulnerability, and without providing any additional funding to support it."
"This is not a Second Amendment issue," said Thompson. "This is a transportation security issue."
Steve Kulm, director of media relations for Amtrak, said Amtrak felt it was inappropriate to link funding with the Wicker Amendment. Kulm also noted that Amtrak might need to make physical changes to baggage cars and to stations to enable the checking of bags with firearms. Only 30 percent of Amtrak stations have the ability to check bags.
But Kulm said that in the final version of the bill, "key details have been revised that allay our major concerns. First, the original Wicker amendment called for compliance by March 31, 2010. The final bill says Amtrak has six months from enactment to evaluate the security needs and develop procedures/guidance and then another six months to implement it (basically we get one year, not three months to meet compliance).
"Second," said Kulm, "the original Wicker amendment called for loss of federal funds if Amtrak did not comply by March 31, 2010. The final bill does not include that language."A spokesperson for Sen. Wicker said it was appropriate to link funding with the amendment, since Amtrak is taxpayer funded. "When all the scare tactics and rhetoric are set aside," said the spokesperson, "the simple intent of this provision is to give law-abiding gun owners the same opportunity they have on airlines in our country to securely transport firearms in checked luggage."
"Prior to 9/11, Amtrak allowed the transportation of firearms in checked luggage without incident," said the spokesperson. "We are confident they can make the appropriate consultations and any security improvements that are needed to once again implement this policy."
NRA spokesman Arulanandam also said the bill would only restore the status quo pre 9/11, and that the firearms ban was unfair to passengers who don't travel by air. "A good example would be people who travel Amtrak and head to Florida for the winter. They will be living there for a relatively long time, and if they want to transport a lawful firearm they should have the opportunity."
Asked if it was appropriate for firearms to be barred after 9/11, Arulanandam said, "That's not a question I can answer at this point in time. That's a question that should be posed to other folks."
Arulanandam noted, however, that explosives and not guns were used in the Madrid and London terror attacks. "It is important to remember that September 11 was perpetrated by people with box cutters."
The final version of the funding bill would permit passengers to carry "an unloaded firearm or starter pistol" in a hard-sided, locked bag that would be checked at those Amtrak stations that accept checked baggage.
The bill gives Amtrak 180 days from the passage of the bill to devise "proposed guidance and procedures necessary to implement a new checked firearms program," and a year to implement the program.