Gun Control on the High Seas

Americans received a special gift this Easter Sunday with the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips, who had been held hostage for several days after his ship, the Maersk Alabama, was raided by pirates.

The raiding of the Maersk created an international crisis and an around the clock media sensation.  Millions of people around the globe were riveted to their TVs, praying and hoping for Capt. Phillips’ safety as the U.S. Navy moved massive vessels into the area.  In the end, the brave Captain was freed when well-trained U.S. snipers took out three of the four pirates.

The obvious question that was seldom asked during the tense standoff was, “How could so few terrorists (another word for pirates) overtake a vessel crewed by five times as many people?”

After all, couldn’t the crew have just shot the invaders as they tried to board the ship? 

Maybe they could have if they had firearms onboard, but container ships like the Maersk are generally prohibited from carrying firearms because of gun laws in the countries of various ports of departure and entry.  Shipping companies and crews don’t dare violate these gun bans because the penalties can be severe.

For example, in Kenya, where the Maersk was headed, the government is expected to soon make possession of an unlicensed firearm a capital offense.  Currently the offense carries a long prison sentence.  

And for those who might think a foreign government would never penalize a ship that was obviously armed to repel pirate attacks, consider the case of Australian businessman and yachtsman Chris Packer. 

In 2004, Packer was in the midst of an around-the-world tour when his yacht was boarded by government officials at a port in Bali, Indonesia.  On board were two pump-action shotguns, a rifle, two pistols and an inoperable antique firearm.

Indonesian authorities contemplated the charge of “gun running,” a capital offense.  Packer’s firearms, which he declared at other Indonesian ports, were purchased specifically for defense against pirates. 

Packer’s friend and former America’s Cup winner, Sir Peter Blake, was shot and killed by pirates who boarded his vessel at the mouth of the Amazon River in 2001.  After that incident, Packer delayed his own planned trip to South America in order to obtain arms for protection.  Packer’s vessel was twice boarded by pirates, and he believes he would certainly be dead were he not armed.

Packer spent about three months in jail in Bali, never sure he would escape the firing squad.  Eventually, authorities in Bali convicted Packer on the lesser charge of not declaring his firearms upon entering the port and released him with time served.

Commercial shipping companies simply can’t risk violating the draconian gun laws of other countries, so they instead run the risk of being defenseless against pirates in hostile waters.

The outrageous but predicable result of laws that are intended to disarm criminals is that gigantic commercial vessels like the Maersk are vulnerable to attack from small groups of thugs in little motorboats. 

The arguments for self-defense firearms possession are the same on the sea as they are on land — only at sea the need is even greater.

When a criminal attack occurs, almost always the only people present are the thugs and the victims.  On land, police are usually minutes away.  On the sea, help can be hours or even days away.  The sea-terrorists know this, and they know that mariners are normally unarmed.
Ships that are able to employ armed guards have been able to repel pirates.  Captain Kelly Sweeney of Washington State told FOX News that armed guards thwarted a pirate attack on a vessel he was on in the Dominican Republic. 

Capt. Sweeney’s recipe for self-defense at sea?  Either hire armed guards to protect the ship, or else arm the crew members. 

Anti-gunners will make the same arguments about arming maritime crew members as they do about arming anyone on land.  “Oh, the ships will be more dangerous with all those guns on board.”  But, as we’ve learned the hard way on both land and sea, “gun free zones” simply make easy targets for criminals.   

How was Capt. Phillips ultimately saved?  By people armed with rifles.  These people happened to be on a Navy ship.  If there were no military vessels in the area, the outcome could have been tragically different.  As is often the case, the criminal attack ended when armed assailants were met with armed resistance.

While we can’t change the extreme anti-gun laws of other countries, the American government should insist that American-controlled vessels will not be unilaterally disarmed and that crew members will be permitted to carry firearms onboard for their own protection.