HELENA - Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg is pitching a plan to let Amtrak travelers bring guns on the tax-supported rail service, provided they keep them locked up in checked luggage.
Firearms have been prohibited on Amtrak trains since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"It's Congress' responsibility to bring some common sense to (train) regulators," Rehberg said in an interview with the Missoulian State Bureau. "If people are driving around with these weapons in cars and trucks, do you really think you're that much more at risk on Amtrak?"
Rehberg announced Wednesday he is co-sponsoring the Amtrak Secure Transportation of Firearms Act of 2009, along with several other representatives. The bill would require Amtrak to develop the regulations necessary to allow firearms on all trains where checked baggage is allowed. Firearms would stay in locked, hard-sided cases and housed in the trains' baggage car, Rehberg said. He did not intend for riders to keep open firearms with them in the passenger compartment.
Instead, he said, train riders should have the same opportunities as people traveling by plane. Airplane passengers may check a gun.
Steve Kulm, an Amtrak spokesman, said the train had no problem with Rehberg's bill, but said there are some practical problems the service must address before allowing firearms aboard.
First, Kulm said, the current baggage cars are large, open compartments. The cars are locked, but not monitored in any way, and it is possible for a determined person to get inside, even when the train is moving.
"It doesn't have elaborate security systems," he said. Amtrak would like time to find a way to better secure firearms on its trains, he said, perhaps by adding special locked compartments solely for guns in baggage cars.
Kulm said the rail service opposed an earlier Senate effort to bring firearms onto Amtrak. That also would have made checked firearms permissible on Amtrak, but gave the service a deadline on which they'd have to accept firearms or lose its entire tax appropriation for the year.
Rehberg said there was no such stipulation in his bill - and said the Senate had likewise changed its language on Amtrak and firearms.
Even if Rehberg's bill becomes law, most Amtrak trains would never play host to firearms. Kulm said only 30 percent of the rail's trains allow for checked baggage. Many are commuter trains where passengers cannot check anything, but carry any luggage or other bags with them. Even on routes that do allow checked luggage, checking baggage is limited.
On Amtrak's Empire Builder line, which runs across Montana's northern tier, certain stops are not long enough to allow passengers to check baggage.
Rehberg said he last caught the train in Malta. That stop is so short, Amtrak workers don't have time to check luggage. If you want to check a bag, Rehberg said, you've got to catch the train in Havre.
Rehberg's bill attracted applause from some Montana firearm activists.
""The federal and state prohibition of self defense or transporting fire arms on trains is long overdue for corrections," said Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association. "Such laws only inconvenience law abiding people, but have little effect on criminals."