Fight to allow weapons aboard Amtrak trains could derail transportation bill

A push in Congress for broader gun rights is threatening to derail Amtrak and stall a transportation spending bill.

Gun-rights advocates in Congress are pressing appropriators to keep a provision that would let Amtrak passengers check in handguns with their baggage.

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The provision, which calls for withholding $1.5 billion in Amtrak funding if the policy isn't implemented before April, was inserted into the $68.8 billion Senate transportation and housing and urban development spending bill as an amendment. All 40 Republicans, 27 Democrats and one independent voted for the amendment, sponsored by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).

Amtrak and its defenders in Congress have argued that the government-owned train company needs more time and resources before it could allow firearms onto trains.

“We don’t think we’ll be able to do that March 31 deadline, and, of course, finding the funding to make all of that happening,” said Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm. Failing to meet that deadline and missing out $1.5 billion in appropriated funds, its entire funding request for 2010, would bring a “cessation of train service nationwide,” Amtrak Chairman Thomas Carper wrote to appropriators last month.

Kulm said that Amtrak trains and stations lack security systems seen at airports, baggage cars that are separate from passenger areas and a secure baggage loading area. Under its current policy, only law enforcement officers can bring guns onto its trains.

The Senate bill still needs to be reconciled with a House version that doesn’t include the guns provision.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the appropriator who sponsored the Senate’s transportation spending bill, voted against the provision. Murray is concerned that complying with the provision would be cost-prohibitive for Amtrak, said Alex Glass, a Murray spokeswoman.

Negotiations over the bill are ongoing and that the provision is likely to be one of the last to be addressed by House and Senate conferees, Glass said.

Measures to allow guns on trains have bipartisan support in both chambers.

Senators had adopted another amendment allowing guns on Amtrak trains as part of the budget resolution in April. The provision, which had the support of 22 Democrats, was stripped out of the budget resolution conference.

In the House, a stand-alone bill sponsored by Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) and backed by three centrist Democrats would make permanent a policy allowing guns.

“Amtrak opposes this at their own peril,” said a spokesman for Wicker, Jordan Stoick. “This is a very pro-gun Congress. It has proved that multiple times.”

Gun-rights proponents have noted that Amtrak has allowed passengers’ guns on its trains before, deciding to ban them only after the 2001 terror attacks.

“The most important point is that this would not be a new policy for Amtrak,” said Andrew Arulanandam, spokesman for the National Rifle Association. “This would just be reverting to what was Amtrak policy prior to 9/11.”

The Amtrak provision isn’t the only controversial weapons provision tucked into broader bills.

An amendment blocking Washington, D.C. officials from regulating guns was adopted by the Senate in February as part of a D.C. voting rights bill. Democratic leaders in the House have since withheld consideration of the bill, which would which would give the District a House member with full voting rights. To ease its passage without the gun amendment, Democrats are considering attaching the voting rights measure to the 2010 Defense spending bill.

This month, Congress passed and the president signed into law a conference report for the Homeland Security spending bill that prevents spring-assisted pocketknives from being classified as illegal switchblades. U.S. Customs and Border Protection had proposed changing the definition of those pocketknives, but the NRA and a bipartisan group in Congress opposed the move.