Think an act of piracy can't happen to you? That's what Capt. Larry Withall and the crew of Rapscallion thought back in November 1995. Withall and his mate aboard the 65-foot Hatteras were pirated in Fort Lauderdale by armed gunmen and barely escaped alive when they ran the vessel up on the reef near Cat Cay in the Bahamas. So the question that many of us ? who become instant Libertarians once we leave the dock ? ask ourselves is: Should I carry weapons aboard my boat for the purpose of self-defense? And if you decide to answer "yes," what weapons, where to keep them and how to use them should be your next "questions to self."
Lethal vs. Non-Lethal
First, understand that I make no judgments whatsoever about people who dislike guns so intensely that not only would they never have them aboard their own boats, but wish every gun on the planet would disappear. For those, other less-lethal options exist for self-defense. For example, many vessels now employ several odd but effective methods: Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs) are "speakers" that emit directional sonic blasts in a very narrow beam. Made by American Technology Corporation, these "sonic cannons" focus debilitating loud streams of non-lethal noise at attacking vessels.
The downside to this is that most small outboard vessels won't be able to carry this device.
Another fascinating non-lethal weapon that also won't fit aboard smaller boats is a device capable of beaming bowel-movement-inducing sound waves in the direction of attackers. Reports show that it works very well.
Close-quarters weapons such as tasers, mace and pepper spray fit much more comfortably aboard small recreational craft. But personally, I don't want to get that close to an attacker. That leaves guns.
Logic dictates that lethal weapons can harm both the target and the user given myriad untoward circumstances. Obviously, if you choose to go the lethal-force route, you must get proper training in handling the weapon as well as when and how to use it against a would-be attacker. Don't ever be so naïve as to think you can just wave it around and scare off your assailant.
Every expert I consulted agreed that if you aren't fully trained with a particular firearm as well as prepared to shoot someone and possibly take his or her life, then you shouldn't carry a gun for protection.
Interestingly, virtually every expert agreed that they'd prefer a shotgun or rifle to a handgun. One of my favorite weapons experts, Gary Joyce (who ran more than 60 four-man reconnaissance missions in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970), ranks as expert with a variety of domestic weapons and has had an "intimate relationship" with those of several other nations. "Anything other than a shotgun is pretty much a waste of time unless you're awfully skilled. Almost anyone can hit anything with some double-ought buckshot up close. Get a marinized version. Mossberg makes a good one for under $500."
What lends pistols their popularity as concealed weapons is obvious: They're small and ? well, concealable. On board a vessel, you can keep one very handy whereas something with a longer barrel needs to be more carefully stowed ? usually farther from hand. However, Joyce warns, "Forget about hitting something with a 9 mm pistol at more than 10 feet. You can't do it. If you could, you'd be in special ops or on television."
Another consideration ? whether getting a long- or short-barrel weapon ? is how it fires, and for that, you have three choices: single shot, semiautomatic and fully automatic. The latter requires endless federal gun permits and really isn't worth the effort for this application. In fact, according to Joyce, "Full automatic means you'll fully empty what ammunition you have in the fastest way possible. Most people who don't shoot for a living can put about two or three rounds somewhere near what they're aiming at on full auto. The rest of the rounds will kill gulls, booby birds, pelicans, etc." If you have a weapon you have difficulty controlling, firing it aboard a small vessel can do serious damage to your friends, family and your own boat.
And finally, two more requirements: As Joyce suggested, stainless steel stands up to the corrosive marine environment better than standard gun metal. Either way, you must maintain your weapon on a continual basis.
When and How to Use a Gun
Three potential assailants might try to do boaters harm: pirates, terrorists and just plain criminals. The latter want your money or equipment and would rather get it while you aren't aboard. Pirates are both thieves and killers who want everything that you have but don't necessarily want notoriety.
Terrorists qualify as mass murderers bent on inflicting as many casualties as possible, thereby influencing mass media and populations.
If you're on a larger boat with cabins, heads, saloons and the like, don't chase after the bad guy. Professional weapons instructor Larry Correia suggests setting up a defensive position behind some cover and letting the marauder(s) come to you. "When you look around corners, get knee-level-low and look. Everybody waits for a head to show ? at about head height."
Joyce insists that you must always be aware of your target and surrounding environment. You are ultimately responsible for where your bullets stop.
Don't shoot a hole in the bottom of your boat!
Federal law makes it illegal to have hidden compartments aboard your boat.
That means that you can't hide your guns (money, drugs, children) in some secret cubbyhole. Other than that, U.S. law allows you to carry licensed weapons aboard your boat in federal waters. Most foreign countries (Mexico and Bahamas included) do not allow vessels to carry weapons aboard when entering their waters. If you have a gun on your boat, you must keep it locked away at all times, with the ammunition in a separate lock box and when clearing customs, be able to supply the serial number and manufacturer of the firearm, plus the exact number of rounds. You'll find that most countries don't think very highly of America's "lax" gun laws. Former U.S.
Coast Guard vice commandant, Admiral Robert Nelson, advises that, "In studying the current piracy problem, I find that aboard most merchant vessels both crew and owners are very much opposed to carrying any armed resistance force: too much chance of shooting the friendlies." Wise advice to the recreational boater too, perhaps.
State laws differ, so refer to your local law-enforcement agency. I consulted Capt. Robert Moore of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the top marine law-enforcement group in Florida. Moore is also this year's president of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. He says that in Florida the same firearms laws apply on land and sea.
One of those laws states that you can't carry a concealed weapon without the proper permit. However, the Florida legislature specifically made it legal to transport and use firearms while fishing and hunting. You can carry a firearm in your boat or car, but it must be in a secured (locked) case.
"I have dealt with people carrying firearms my entire professional law-enforcement career and have come to expect it," says Moore. "But it is important that the responsible person on board let any officer know the whereabouts of firearms when stopped. It's just a reasonable effort to ensure that the officer doesn't end up feeling threatened as a result of a boat operator reaching into the glove or dry box to retrieve the boat's registration ? which is right next to a holstered handgun. Some folks might justifiably get really anxious about that time, and it's really easy to casually mention that there is a firearm on board and where it is located just to keep things at ease."
Admiral Nelson concurs. When boarded by the Coast Guard, he says that one of the first questions protocol demands the team to ask is, "Do you have any firearms aboard?" And he advises most strenuously, "Don't reach to it and offer to show it to him! Just tell the officer where it's located; he will not likely even want to see it."
This hot-button gun issue inspires dramatically differing responses from equally reasonable people. There is no right or wrong answer. But for those who choose to carry arms to protect themselves, be smart about it. Get training and be responsible.