Should you carry a gun on board? Ken Fickett

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Ken Fickett says "yes" - As long as the world's bad guys are armed, I'll cruise with a firearm

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My satellite phone rang as I was anchored off Big Majors Cay in the Exumas. That’s the place where pigs swim out to your boat begging for food. They can get a bit cranky if you don’t have something for them. Some of them are big suckers, too, going well more than 300 pounds. Earlier in the day we had taken the pigs some stale bread, and one of the biggest even tried to board our dinghy to grab more than its share. We had intended to use some of the bread to feed the fish in Thunderball Grotto, a short skiff ride away, but that pig got it all.

  Read the other story in this package: Should you carry a gun on board? Peter Swanson  

The sat-phone call was to ask if I was willing write on the subject of carrying guns on board. I had to chuckle. I was wishing I had my trusty stainless 357 revolver to take care of that piratical porker. It could have been the start of a great luau, which would have been a lot more fun than writing an article like this.

Most responsible gun owners would just as soon not participate in the perpetual debate. Next to abortion, guns probably are the most highly charged topic in America. But since I am a card-carrying, lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, own about 60 guns, and hold a Coast Guard license, I let myself be dragged into the debate.

To begin with, the only reason to carry a gun on board is for personal protection. As kids we used to take shotguns out on our boat and shoot at flushed-up flying fish — like a kind of clay pigeon. While that may sound atrocious to some of you, it was 40 years ago and a different day.

Growing up in Miami we would come home from junior high school and grab our guns to go dove or quail hunting. Nowadays, a teenager walking down a Miami road with a gun on his shoulder would bring out a SWAT team, make the 6 o’clock news, and land that kid in the juvenile lockup. Let’s agree there is no sporting reason to have a gun on board; only self-defense.

For cruising in the United States and its territorial waters, it is safe to say that if you hail from a state that allows gun possession and are traveling to another that also allows it, you are on solid legal ground. When evaluating the laws of various stateside jurisdictions, I also would bear in mind the old maxim: “Better to be judged by 12 than carried by six.”

I will concede that it can be problematic to carry a gun on board outside of the United States. In some foreign ports you will land in jail if found with an undeclared weapon. Peter Swanson’s argument that it is difficult to understand and stay within the various laws of foreign countries is certainly accurate, but the challenge isn’t insurmountable. Do the research for each country you plan to visit and learn what the requirements are, or choose not to visit that country. (My research also told me, for example, that the Bahamas has a higher murder rate than the United States. Drug smuggling may be on the wane here in the Exumas, but it hasn’t been eradicated, judging by the daily flyovers by military and Coast Guard helicopters.)

Whether at home or abroad, gun-savvy boaters should have a secure — by that I mean lockable — stowage for their weapons. A secure locker is mandatory in many countries, including here in the Bahamas, and it’s common sense in all.

Legally carrying a weapon is just the first step. Weapons-training is imperative, and not just a $100 short course. I find it inconceivable that an individual would choose to carry a weapon on board without proper instruction in using it. There are plenty of companies that offer tactical advice and instruction, and any gun owner should be thoroughly informed in the operation of his or her own weapon. You wouldn’t consider leaving the dock without understanding exactly how your boat works; don’t do less with a firearm.

Not only should you be adequately trained in the use of the weapon, you also should possess the skills to actually hit what you are aiming at and not endanger innocent bystanders. This is where the training comes in. At that skill level, there is one more imperative: Any individual who chooses to carry a gun must understand that there can be no quibbling at the moment he or she chooses to use it in self defense or to protect someone else. You have to be completely committed to the use of that gun to wound or kill; there can be no thought of simply “scaring” the perpetrator.

An acquaintance of mine in Miami learned exactly that lesson. Collecting insurance premiums in a tough neighborhood, he came face to face with someone who wanted the cash he was carrying in a very bad way. When the insurance man brought out his gun to “protect” himself, it was promptly taken from him and he was killed with it — his own gun. Poor training and lack of commitment are good reasons to not carry a gun. If that describes you, you are better off without a firearm. It should be noted, however, that the insurance agent may well have been killed anyway, even if he hadn’t been armed.

To me that is pretty much the nuts and bolts of it: know the law, be trained, be committed. With the exception of the foreign legalities, having a firearm for on-board protection shouldn’t be any different from having one in your shoreside home.

I wish I could always know when I am in a place I should not be, or be able to avoid all the bad guys of the world. That simply will never be the case, at home or abroad. From Joshua Slocum to the present, boaters have carried firearms for protection.

Although I spoke of the Bahamas having an element of danger not easily dismissed, my reading suggests a bigger danger to those who cruise farther south, particularly along the coasts of Venezuela, Colombia and the countries of Central America. In those waters foreign cruisers continue to be robbed at gunpoint while aboard their own boats by gangs in native craft. I have to believe we haven’t heard about the people who have successfully defended themselves against these modern pirates, because the prudent mariner would immediately leave the country without reporting the use of a firearm.

Then too, boats and owners have simply disappeared to who knows what ugly end. When faced with evil, being armed may be the one thing that lets you keep control over your own destiny. That’s why, whenever I can, I’ll go armed to give my family and me the best odds for a long and happy life.

Now, you’re probably wondering whether I’ve got a gun aboard right now. Feel free to ask, but I’ll never tell. And I was only joking when I said I wanted to shoot that pig.

Ken Fickett is president of Mirage Mfg., which builds the Great Harbour line of full-displacement trawlers in Gainesville, Fla. Before that the company built nearly 1,000 sailboats and more than 60 sportfishermen.