Somali pirates attacked a U.S. vessel and captured a Dutch ship on Thursday. These raids could be prevented if merchant mariners had guns and could defend their ships.
Richard Phillips, the heroic captain of the crew that fought off pirates on the Maersk Alabama a month ago, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee April 30 that armed crews “should be part of the overall debate about how to defend ourselves against criminals on the seas.”
Capt. Phillips noted that protecting U.S.-flagged ships is the “responsibility of the U.S. government,” but that he understands the limits of what even the U.S. Navy can do to protect all the commercial traffic spread across vast oceans. Just as police arrive on the scene after crimes on land have occurred, the Navy cannot be everywhere all the time. More than 25,000 ships travel off the Horn of Africa every year. That’s a target-rich environment.
Whether it is on land or sea, gun-free zones are magnets for criminals and terrorists. There is a reason that all multiple-victim public shootings in the United States with more than three people killed have occurred where concealed handguns are prohibited: Assailants are confident no one will fight back because their targets legally cannot be armed to defend themselves.
Commercial seamen suffer the same vulnerability because pirates can be sure the ships’ crews are unarmed.
There are several legal obstacles to arming ship crews. Some naysayers worry that if crews were armed, things could somehow go wrong and that violence with pirates would escalate. But as the widespread ownership of guns on land has proven, alarm over gun possession is based on conjecture with no evidence to back it up. States that have passed laws permitting concealed handguns have experienced less violence, not more.
Liability concerns of some shipping companies are similarly unfounded, as commercial aviation has shown. U.S. pilots were allowed to carry guns until as recently as 1987. No training was required, and yet there were no accidental gunshots or incidents of pilots harming others. After the program to allow armed pilots was renewed in 2003, there has been only one accidental shot and no one was harmed.
Many ship owners appreciate that armed crews would protect their ships, cargo and personnel. In May 5 Senate testimony, Philip J. Shapiro, chief executive officer of Liberty Maritime Corp., said: “In light of the recent threats to U.S. merchant mariners, we respectfully request that Congress consider clearing the obstacles that currently block ship owners from arming our vessels.”
Most nations do not permit armed vessels to enter their waters. But developments in the air suggest a solution for change on the high seas. In 2007, the Homeland Security Department and the State Department announced they would begin negotiating with other countries to let armed pilots carry their guns with them when they fly into foreign destinations. It is time to initiate an even more serious effort to let ship crews carry guns. Armed seamen would be less expensive than giving each merchant ship its own naval escort.