Senate: Let train riders check firearms in bags

KANSAS CITY, Mo. —The U.S. Senate has voted to allow Amtrak passengers — for the first time since Sept. 11, 2001 — to transport guns in checked bags.

The proposal would require Amtrak to allow guns by April 1 or risk losing its funding and shutting down train service nationwide.

Firearms would still be banned in carry-on luggage.

Passengers could take guns aboard where checked baggage service is available. That's about 30 percent of Amtrak 520 stations, including Kansas City's Union Station.

The proposal would cover Amtrak's Southwest Chief, which runs from Chicago to Los Angeles through Kansas City.

Consequently, you could transport a gun if you board the Southwest Chief in Kansas City, but not in Lawrence, Topeka or La Plata, Mo., where baggage isn't checked. It wouldn't affect Amtrak service between Kansas City and St. Louis because checked baggage service isn't available on that route, nor can bags be checked in Kansas.

Another twist: Guns are banned at Union Station. Passage of the provision "would pose a unique challenge," said George M. Guastello, Union Station's president.

The firearms measure, which the Senate tucked into a transportation spending bill, was backed by all four senators from Kansas and Missouri.

It's unclear whether the gun language will remain in the bill, but supporters are hopeful because it received strong, bipartisan support in the Senate and because a similar piece of stand-alone legislation is pending in the House with 34 co-sponsors.

Advocates say the proposal would put trains on equal footing with planes, where guns can be packed into checked baggage.

"Amtrak regulations prohibit the transport of firearms in checked baggage, which infringe on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.

Critics say the gun provision would weaken rail security and would be fiscally impossible to start in six months.

Though Amtrak now bars passengers from transporting guns, it has no uniform screening method for firearms. The agency said it employs a number of security initiatives, including random searches, identification checks and others that are not publicly visible.

Amtrak officials say the railway conducted random searches of checked baggage before 9/11 and does so more aggressively now.

But as far as passenger Brian Kunitz is concerned, the notion of guns on trains evokes only images of security delays.

"All the things that come to mind are negative and nothing that will make transportation any faster or less complicated," Kunitz said during a layover at Union Station.

"Anyone who wants to have a gun should have a right to a gun," he said. "But I also know how easy it is to take a train."

Other passengers had a different take.

"It's the person, not the gun, that's the danger," said Colleen Vinsonhaler of Las Cruces, N.M., as she waited to board the Southwest Chief last week. "As long as it's checked, it's out of the hands of the person."

Others said they've seen little evidence of security on Amtrak and wouldn't be surprised if passengers were carrying guns already.