Federal air marshals say their guns are loaded with bullets capable of running through more than one person, metal doors and thick glass - too much firepower for an airplane.
"Not only is the person getting shot in danger, but everyone on the plane is because of the distance it travels," said one air marshal who testified in a recently completed House Judiciary Committee investigation of policies marshals deemed dangerous.
Several marshals say their bullets can penetrate most of the material in planes, leaving pilots and the plane's hydraulics and flight-control system vulnerable if a weapon is discharged. Cockpit doors have been hardened with steel, but the walls on either side of the door have not.
Another marshal told the House committee agents should be issued ammunition loaded with frangible bullets, which break into smaller pieces on impact and thus have limited power to exit the target and continue.
"An aircraft is made up of composites, plastics, and aluminum. If a round were to penetrate through the front plastic/composite windshield of the aircraft, the results would be catastrophic at 500 miles per hour. We should be using frangible ammunition. It's a no-brainer," the Nov. 27 memo said.
The House Judiciary report, released last week, included the committee's concerns about the ammunition, but the Transportation Security Administration's response was redacted from the report.
Federal Air Marshal Service Director Dana Brown is reviewing the agency's use of a .357-caliber handgun and Speer Gold Dot .357 SIG round, nonfrangible ammunition, said FAMS spokesman Conan Bruce.
Mr. Bruce said air marshals used to use frangible ammunition but switched weapons and ammunition after researching testing by outside groups. The change was approved by former FAMS Director Thomas Quinn, a former Secret Service agent.
Massad Ayoob, a ballistics authority and director of the Lethal Force Institute, calls the ammunition "an excellent load" that the Secret Service uses to protect the president. The bullet is designed to expand in the body to cause greater physical harm.
"If you get a peripheral hit in the arm, it has enough power to keep going and kill whoever it hits," said Mr. Ayoob, who explained that the bullet moves 1,350 feet per second.
"It's no trick to change the ammunition load they are using now to 1,500 feet per second to get a 10-inch, very substantial wound, and it would minimize the likelihood of an exit," Mr. Ayoob said. "That would reduce penetration by a few inches and widen the wound, which brings about a faster cessation of the action."
Federal air marshals have tough shooting requirements and "are among the best shooters in law enforcement," Mr. Ayoob says.
Don Strange, former special agent in charge of the FAMS Atlanta field office, said the ammunition FAMS agents use is good for the Secret Service and other law enforcement but not in the "tube of an airplane."
"It would penetrate at least the first body, but it can also penetrate a second and possibly third body," Mr. Strange said.
Mr. Strange has more than 30 years of federal law-enforcement experience but says he was fired from FAMS by Mr. Quinn for criticizing the agency's choice of ammunition, dress code and other policies.
When Mr. Strange informed officials at FAMS headquarters of his concern about the weapon's load, "I told them I hoped the reason we were using it was not because Quinn wants us to, and they said that is the reason."
Philip Van Cleave, a former deputy sheriff and president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said he was surprised to learn the marshals are not using frangible firepower.
"It's ironic that the very people who are carrying the guns are complaining, that tells you something there - they don't want to be underarmed, but they want to be able to protect passengers," Mr. Van Cleave said.
Several thousand pilots are trained to carry guns to protect the cockpit, however David Mackett, president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, declined to say what kind of weapons or ammunition are used by federal flight-deck officers.
"The federal air marshals are competent and experienced law enforcement, and I would take any recommendations they would make very seriously," Mr. Mackett said.
The House investigation said in its report released last week that policies dictating dress and boarding procedures in sight of passengers undermine the marshals' anonymity and suggested that any marshal who initiated changes fell victim to retaliation.
In its response to the committee, the Transportation Security Administration, which manages FAMS, said the policies have been changed. Air marshals who spoke to panel lawyers disagreed with the TSA's claims in interviews with The Washington Times.
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