In November of 2008 (before the merchant vessel Maersk Alabama was captured by pirates), I suggested that the Federal Government could aid in arming ship crews. I stated that while shipping companies certainly had the right to arm their crews themselves, many foreign ports were hostile to the idea of armed civilians. I suggested that sanctioning of certain armed sailors by the American government might ease the fears of some squeamish governments and provide legal cover for armed seaman.
In a similar vein, U.S. Representative Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) has recently introduced H.R. 2984, the “United States Mariner and Vessel Protection Act of 2009.” The stated purpose of the bill is “to assist in the defense of United States-flag vessels against piracy and to ensure the traditional right of self-defense of those vessels against piracy.”
Rep. LoBiondo, who is on the U.S. House of Representatives Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommittee, said of his bill, “Our merchant marine fleet is increasingly under attack from unlawful individuals and rogue groups that seek to disrupt commerce, seize U.S. and foreign crews, and instill fear on international waters. It is only appropriate that our fleets be legally allowed to defend themselves from these violent encounters. This common-sense legislation is a necessary step in empowering U.S.-flagged vessels to protect their crews and cargo.”
The bill would direct the appropriate U.S. Secretary to “issue regulations establishing standards and circumstances under which an individual is authorized to use force (including lethal force) against an individual in the defense of a vessel against piracy.”
It would also limit the liability of ship owners, operators, and individuals for damages arising during the defense of a vessel (except in cases of gross negligence or willful misconduct). To achieve this automatic limited liability when using firearms, a mariner would have to have “completed training certified by the Coast Guard for use of firearms aboard vessels.” This would help calm the fears of shipping companies that are reluctant to arm their crews for fear of future lawsuits.
The bill would also allow the U.S. Coast Guard to deploy “maritime safety and security team[s] on a temporary basis, […] to deter, protect against, and rapidly respond to acts of piracy against vessels […] in international waters.”
Perhaps most importantly, the bill would authorize the appropriate U.S. Secretary to “work through the International Maritime Organization to establish agreements to promote coordinated action among flag and port states to deter, protect against, and rapidly respond to acts of piracy against the vessels of, and in the waters under the jurisdiction of, those nations, and to ensure limitations on liability similar to those established by […] this Act.” [Emphasis added.] In other words, the U.S. government would try to win legal protections for armed crews even from foreign governments.
I believe this law would be authorized by the U.S. Constitution under Article 1, Section 8, which gives Congress power “To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas,” and “To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia,” and “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations[.]”
So long as it doesn’t become the ONLY way that ship owners are allowed to arm their crews, I think this bill is a good bill that would help reduce piracy against U.S. merchant vessels.