To the short list of equipment D.C. taxi drivers are offered to protect themselves -- emergency roof light, security camera, bulletproof partition -- the city's Taxicab Commission yesterday debated adding another: guns.
The proposal, offered informally by commission member Sandra Seegars, was met immediately by equal parts ebullience and derision.
In the "it's about time" category were some drivers who say they need something more to fight back against the occasional armed passenger. On the "not in this lifetime" side was virtually everyone associated with city government.
"The proposal is nutty, and obviously, it would not be entertained seriously by any thinking person," said Tony Bullock, spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D).
"There is no question in the universe that can be answered with more guns," said Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), head of the D.C. Council's Committee on the Judiciary. "The District of Columbia is clear on this: We oppose guns."
Seegars said she just wanted to provoke discussion of how to better keep the city's 6,000 taxi drivers out of harm's way.
"The safety devices we have now do not work. The 911 emergency light on top of the cab? You might as well put a flashlight up there and it's the same thing," Seegars said in an interview. "I heard the mayor's office say this is just a publicity stunt. Well, that's right -- it's a stunt to get them more protection."
About 20 drivers were in attendance as the commission debated the idea yesterday at its regular monthly meeting. They appeared divided.
On one hand, the drivers agreed that the police do not respond quickly or thoroughly to complaints of robberies or assaults. But some drivers feared that more weapons would simply cause more violence, some against fellow drivers.
Taking the floor during the spirited 45-minute debate, E.J. Chubbs, an independent driver, reminded the audience of the cab line at Reagan National Airport, where drivers often get into arguments, even fistfights, over who is going to pick up potential passengers.
"How many times have people been knocked in the head in that line? Can you imagine if we had guns?" Chubbs asked, as fellow drivers nodded and chuckled. "This is a terrible idea."
But it was not so terrible to other drivers, who recounted being robbed at gunpoint or being struck by angry or drunk passengers.
"I don't want to carry a gun. Guns scare me. Knives scare me," said Nathan Price of Yellow Cab. "But it should be an option of the driver's to protect himself if the government does not protect you."
Sgt. Joe Gentile, a D.C. police spokesman, said the department works as hard to protect cabdrivers as anyone else in the city. "We do care about every case brought to our attention," he said.
Neither the commission nor D.C. police keep specific statistics on crimes against taxi drivers, a topic that has gotten more attention since several drivers were killed or wounded in the District a few years ago. The U.S. Labor Department reported that the homicide rate for taxi drivers nationwide is higher than that for police officers, making driving a cab one of the most dangerous jobs in the country.
Some jurisdictions -- such as Boston and Miami-Dade County, Fla. -- allow taxi drivers to carry guns provided they comply with regular licensing provisions that apply to any citizen.
The Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association, a national lobbying organization based in Kensington, does not take a formal position on the matter.
"The bottom line is that there's a wide variety of safety devices, but I've seen no evidence that any one device is better than another," said Alfred Lagasse, the group's executive vice president.
Two years ago, the D.C. Taxicab Commission passed a resolution requiring all taxi drivers to use one of three safety devices. The emergency roof light is the most popular because it is the cheapest option at $50 to $125, followed by the plexiglass partition ($300 to $500) and the security camera ($800), a commission spokeswoman said.
Guns, detractors argue, would be even more expensive because drivers would need to go through training and gain permits to drive into Maryland and Virginia.
At least for the foreseeable future, it seems, taxi passengers should not expect their driver to be armed.
"This administration and this city council are not about to authorize a measure of that kind," Bullock said. "We are not going to reduce handgun violence by introducing thousands of additional handguns throughout the city."