On March 24, all of America’s eyes turned to Washington, D.C., where survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School led a “March for Our Lives.” An estimated 500,000 people jammed the streets in support of gun-control legislation, following the death of 17 people at the Florida school on February 14. Smaller marches took place nationwide and in other parts of the world.
U.S. news coverage of the gun debate has been all but constant, with lobbyists across the spectrum from the National Rifle Association to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence weighing in. No less than a retired U.S. Supreme Court justice, John Paul Stevens, took to the pages of The New York Times, urging demonstrators to “demand a repeal of the Second Amendment.” And while the current gun-control conversation is centered broadly on schools and public safety, the debate about whether to bear arms is one that yacht captains have been having, often privately, for years.
Yachts, unlike schools, are not mass-shooting targets. They are, instead, highly personalized targets. The kind of person who might shoot up a school is generally going to have a different motivation than the type who brings violence to a yacht.
A mass shooter may be looking for notoriety, or to send a political message by indiscriminately killing as many people as possible. A shooter going after a yacht is likely looking to steal money or luxury goods, or to kill a specific individual, such as a well-known entertainer, businessman or politician who might be on board.
For those reasons, the debate about guns on yachts tends to focus on personal protection, as opposed to the big-picture public safety issues that are in the news right now. And when it comes to personal protection, yachts have options in addition to guns.
Some are incredibly basic, such as floodlights. A captain once told me a story about seeing what he presumed to be pirates aboard center consoles, trailing his yacht. He had no guns on board, but he knew that the guys in the center consoles didn’t know that. The captain waited for the center consoles to get close, then blasted them with the yacht’s floodlights while having all crewmen stand on deck and stare the oncoming men down. That was all it took to resolve the situation. The center consoles fled, no guns necessary.
Other captains—especially those transiting through pirate-heavy waters—hire temporary security teams to live on board. Yachts moving from the Mediterranean to the South Pacific, for instance, have to go through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, which has long been a region of kidnappings and robberies. Captains in those locations let the professionally trained security forces bring guns on board, and often cruise in yacht convoys to enhance safety even further.
A handful of yachts have been built with safe rooms or panic rooms, but most captains say that they can turn an engine room into a de facto type of safe room, through locking mechanisms and communications systems that are now standard installations anyway. In the face of piracy or similar danger, they will generally have all female crew members and guests go to the engine room and “lockdown” there, while the situation on deck resolves.
Which, of course, begs the question of how to resolve the situation on deck, if there is no armed security aboard. And on that question, yacht captains tend to be a lot like Americans debating gun issues today: Some insist that having a gun aboard enhances safety, while others insist that having a gun aboard only invites trouble.
They may both be right, depending on where they cruise and the dangers they face. Which is why, as with all other gun issues, the debate about firearms aboard yachts will continue for many years to come.