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It’s legal for U.S. mariners to carry firearms, but it may be impractical because of liability

Nov 26, 2013 12:11 PM
Cadets at Massachusetts Maritime Academy undergo small-arms training, which prepares them for possible future assignments with the U.S. Military Sealift Command.

Courtesy Mass Maritime Academy

Cadets at Massachusetts Maritime Academy undergo small-arms training, which prepares them for possible future assignments with the U.S. Military Sealift Command.

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In the United States, the relative freedom to carry guns extends to civilian mariners in American or international waters.

Merchant seafarers who wish to bring “defense materials” aboard their vessels, including firearms meant for emergency use by the crew, must obtain a permit and register the weapons under the U.S. Department of State’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

In practice, however, virtually no shipping companies provide weapons to their own crews, preferring instead to utilize professional guards. In light of the dangers which mariners face at sea, some commentators argue that commercial mariners ought to have access to weapons in order to defend themselves and their crew in case of attack. According to the National Rifle Association (NRA) in a published statement, “firearms and armed citizens can be as effective a criminal deterrent at sea as they are on land.”

One advocate for the idea of an armed merchant fleet is U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), who is former chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. In 2009, LoBiondo introduced the United States Mariner and Vessel Protection Act of 2009 (H.R. 2984). The bill was intended to “provide civil liability protection to crewmembers who use force to defend a U.S. vessel against a pirate attack,” according to an e-mailed statement by LoBiondo spokesman Jason Galanes.

Though ships with permits are allowed to have weapons, mariners can face charges if they incur damage or injury though their use, an especially shaky situation when in foreign waters. While the original bill died in committee, the key elements of the bill were integrated into the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010, which was signed into law by President Obama.

Section 912 “shields an owner, operator, time charterer, master, mariner or individual who uses, or authorizes the use of, force to defend a vessel of the United States against piracy from liability for monetary damages for any injury or death caused by such force to any person engaging in an act of piracy if such force was in accordance with standard rules for the use of force in self-defense of vessels.”

The law also calls for federal officials to work through the International Maritime Organization to seek agreements establishing similar legal protections for foreign waters.

According to the NRA, pirates are emboldened by the fact that “vessels are easy targets due to the high level of probability that seamen are unarmed.” The gun-rights group argues that seafarers should carry firearms for personal protection.

For Capt. James Staples of OceanRiver LLC, however, such protections are not enough to make the proposition more palatable for either the vessel owners or ship masters. Staples regularly sails on Military Sealift Command (MSC) ships, which do have weapon caches in case of emergency, and has used a firearm while embarked. Once off the coast of Oman, his vessel was approached at 0300 by three smaller craft, and the crew fired several warning shots.

According to Staples, because crews on modern ships are so small, individual crewmembers are under enormous stress with just their navigation duties, never mind being relied upon to handle a weapon.

“Sixty percent of the (merchant) sailors I’ve met don’t know how to mix the paint right, let alone handle a weapon in a stressful situation,” Staples said.

Staples emphasized that, in merchant fleets, the captain of a ship may not have access to the backgrounds or criminal histories of his or her seafarers, and providing a weapon to a mariner with a felony would be a criminal act and could imperil the crew. However, for those vessels which do, for whatever reason, carry weapons on board, Staples emphasized that the crews must be trained in escalation of force, in this respect more like “police training.”

Donald Marcus, president of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots labor union, echoed Staples’ sentiment that weapons aboard a ship ought only be used as a last resort, “if there are no other alternatives.” Both men agreed that U.S. military personnel are the best guards to have on a vessel in case of risk. This is because international regulations regarding contracted security personnel are less clear-cut than those regarding military, and because soldiers both have more experience and are more extensively trained.

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