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Rules of the Road: Deciding to carry weapons onboard involves more than security

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Rules of the Road by Capt. Jake DesVergers

Between the craziness of politics and the economy, 2016 was a tumultuous year. Within the mix of headlines, unfortunately, was news of an increase in security issues throughout the world. Europe, in particular, has seen an exponential growth in ISIS-supported attacks on civilian locations.

Because of these concerns, many in the yachting industry are revisiting an old question: Should the yacht carry a gun?

Having sailed on ships in war zones and during peace time, my experience leads to ask this follow-up question: When would you use it? Based upon conversations with several key people in yachting, the following scenarios were created for discussion:

  1. It is late at night. You are in the galley and hear a noise on deck. You grab the gun and go out to find someone stealing the tender. He has already cut the line and is about 20 feet from the boat. Do you shoot?
  2. You are asleep in your cabin and awake to see someone going through your wallet. Do you go for a gun and shoot?
  3. An intruder threatens you with a knife. Do you go for a gun and use it?
  4. The yacht is approached by a small boat of heavily armed individuals with automatic weapons. Does the presence of weapons on your vessel increase your level of safety?

These are questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. They certainly depend on many factors, including experience, training, ethics and level of risk. But they are definitely food for thought.

Taking the human factor out of the equation, what are the legal ramifications and when is it allowable to use deadly force? Those of us living in the United States may think we know the answer to this one, but what about in the many countries that we frequent?

Consider this: a homeowner hears a noise at his front door and goes to investigate. There he finds a would-be intruder trying to break in and yelling that he is going to kill the homeowner. The homeowner gets his gun and kills the would-be intruder. Self-defense, right? Not necessarily. Depending on the location of the incident, the homeowner could be tried for manslaughter, because he did not exercise all other options before resorting to deadly force.

In some of the cases, the court has said that he could have gotten away from the intruder by going out the back door. Deadly force was not necessary. That same scenario can be played out on any yacht.

Let’s look at this subject from a matter of convenience. Every country a yacht visits will have a different level of tolerance. Everyone will require the vessel to declare weapons upon entry, even the most tolerant gun country of the United States. Some countries, such as Antigua, will require the master to turn them over to the authorities while the yacht visits. Others, such as the Bahamas, will require the master to account for every round of ammunition.

Some countries in the Leeward Islands require the vessel to clear in and out of customs at each port of call, meaning the master is constantly turning in and picking up weapons.

A few countries allow a yacht to keep a gun on board if it remains in a “secure gun locker” that customs can seal with tape. However, in our research, we never found anyone who could define an acceptable “secure gun locker”.

Of course, one could lie on the customs form and not declare any weapons. Congratulations, you fooled them, but now the master is in possession of an illegal firearm in a country whose gun laws are unknown. Even when in a situation where a legal right to use a gun exists, did you just forfeit that right by smuggling the gun into the country?

Back in the United States, laws differ based upon federal, state, county/parish, and even local jurisdiction. There is extensive information available on the internet. Perhaps the best source is the National Rifle Association (www.nra.org). The legal department of this not-for-profit consumer advocacy group has exhaustively researched each state and the reciprocity laws for the carriage of firearms.

For example, residents of Florida who possess a license to carry a firearm have reciprocal rights to carry that firearm, without need for a new license, in Georgia. But be careful with that little bit of knowledge. Imagine that after a stay in Savannah, the owner wants to sail to Charleston (in South Carolina). Innocently enough, the yacht has now illegally trafficked a firearm into that state.

For international travel, the best sources for information are the consulates of the nations the yacht intends to visit. Request from them verifiable, written information on firearms laws for cruising yachts. Do not rely solely on the information reported in cruising guides. It can be outdated, wrong, or dangerously misleading. Definitely, in no situation, rely upon a friend’s experience, what someone heard, or that guy in the pub.

What about carrying a non-lethal weapon, such as a police nightstick or pepper spray? The highest recommendation from all security experts emphasizes training, training and more training. These are not toys. The mere presence of such an item may have the opposite effect of deterrence and require its immediate use. Pepper spray may be a better option to some users versus a gun, but this is also considered a weapon in some places.

If you decide to carry weapons, do some research. Check with the yacht’s flag administration, the ports on the itinerary, the yacht’s insurance company, and definitely the owner.

Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau (www.yachtbureau.org).

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One thought on “Rules of the Road: Deciding to carry weapons onboard involves more than security

  1. Fred Brodsky

    Before traveling on an extended trip to the Caribbean, we researched all destination gun laws and decided to leave our weapons at home. On many islands, you are required to turn in your weapons and all ammunition thereby rendering the benefit moot.

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