In a shocking genuflection to the gun lobby, the Senate has voted to deny Amtrak its indispensable $1.6 billion federal subsidy unless it allows passengers to transport handguns in their checked luggage. The budget support would be stripped in six months unless Amtrak scraps the gun ban that it wisely adopted five years ago after the terrorist railroad atrocities in Madrid.
The majority vote was bipartisan and not even close, with 27 Democrats and one independent (the ultraliberal Bernie Sanders from gun-friendly Vermont) joining all 40 Republicans versus 30 opponents. The hope is that the House or President Barack Obama will ultimately reject the Amtrak measure, but security-wary citizens cannot count on that as the gun lobby choreographs political cravenness.
The budget cudgel was approved despite pleas from Amtrak that it lacks the manpower, equipment and extra financing to effectively meet the deadline and that it faces a shutdown if federal funds are lost. Among other changes, baggage cars would have to be securely retrofitted and manpower increased. The warning cut no ice with the majority as the chief sponsor, Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican of Mississippi, intoned a lockstep mantra: "Americans should not have their Second Amendment rights restricted for any reason."
Proponents said the change was needed to put Amtrak back to its pre-9/11 gun policy and equate it with airline security measures that allow unloaded, locked handguns in checked baggage. This is lunatic reasoning for a nation supposedly sensitized by the 9/11 attacks. Why should gun owners be treated as privileged travelers?
Amtrak has none of the hermetic procedures where airport passengers are screened shoeless at detectors while their checked baggage is separately secured. Trains stop at stations and passengers come and go. Amtrak now has a system of checking passengers and screening baggage at random, much the way New York police monitor mass transit.
If the Senate wants to pass a bill on Amtrak, it should provide the money to hire more security guards and create a real passenger rail system. Generally, it should just stop its demeaning homage to the gun lobby.