- The Washington Times - Friday, November 20, 2009

Merchant ships need guns to fight pirates. Seven months ago, Somali pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama and held its captain hostage. Pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama again this week but were repulsed because the Maersk Shipping Line put armed guards on its ships.

Pirates successfully attacked another unarmed ship on Monday, leaving 28 members of its crew dead. On Tuesday, 36 crew members of a Spanish ship were released only after pirates were paid a $3.3 million ransom. But when the pirates got within 300 yards of the Maersk Alabama, the ship tried evasive maneuvers and its security team successfully engaged in small-arms fire. Vice Admiral Bill Gortney of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command said the actions of the Maersk Alabama were following the maritime industry’s “best practices.”

Things have changed a lot since the first Maersk Alabama attack in April. As late as the beginning of 2009, it was very rare for ships to have armed security guards. Now about 20 percent of the vessels off East Africa are armed, though they are almost exclusively American ships. Gun-control advocates warned about having guns on ships, pointing to possible accidents or misuse. As with armed pilots on airplanes, the fear of guns on ships has not been justified by experience.

It is not practical to depend on the Navy to protect merchant shipping. Aside from the enormous cost, Navy ships cannot be everywhere all the time, and they generally arrive on the scene after an initial action has taken place. It is far better for merchant ships to defend themselves, but a major obstacle exists. Many foreign ports do not allow armed vessels to dock. The U.S. government can help by using diplomatic channels to convince other nations to allow entry to lightly armed ships.

Gun-control proponents keep claiming that banning guns will make people safer, but we suspect that as more ships are armed, fewer will be attacked. What gun controllers refuse to admit is that gun-free zones are a magnet for criminals, terrorists and even pirates.

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