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Guns on the Open Water

News reports of the horrific shooting in Las Vegas have definitely triggered the renewal of the gun control debate. Those supporting gun control measures will point to the accessibility of  assault weapons as allowing a mad man to kill 58 people and injure over 500. Those against gun control will point to the character of the gunman and the Second Amendment, which has nebulous language and, some would argue, is no longer as relevant in modern times.

This tragic incident raises a question with respect to firearms and maritime law. Can a private individual take firearms aboard a boat? The person may feel vulnerable out on the open water and want the guns for protection. Or perhaps he or she is hunting marine animals? Does it depend where the individual is with regard to the applicable gun law?

Coastal Waters

Based on the Convention of the High Seas of 1958, a country controls up to 12 nautical miles from its coastline (and up to 24 nautical miles, depending on the circumstances). Beyond that, the water is “international water” that has a different set of rules.

When travelling on the U.S. coastal waters, a ship will be subject to the relevant laws of that coast. For instance, those traveling on Texas coastal waters are subject to Texas gun laws. Texas, a conservative-leaning state, has lighter gun control laws, whereas ships travelling on New Jersey coastal waters face stricter gun control laws. A person can go on a boat in Texas and travel to New Jersey while bringing along firearms. In Texas, he or she is a law-abiding citizen while he or she can be arrested and face criminal charges in New Jersey.

The same rules apply for sovereigns. A person can go by boat from California to Alaska, passing by Canada’s coastal waters. He or she may be law-abiding in California, but must declare the firearms off the Canadian coast or face stiff fines. A summer trip up to Alaska to go hunting can turn into a nightmare along the Canadian coast. Therefore, before travelling aboard a boat with firearms, check the rules of the local jurisdiction, based on where the ship will travel.

International Waters

In general, a boat traveling in international water is subject to the law based on how the ship is “flagged.” This, of course, does not mean that flying any flag makes the ship under the laws of that flag; instead it means that the ship is subject to the the laws of of the country in which the ship is registered.

When a ship is travelling without registration, it is difficult to determine what applicable governing law applies to that ship. Nonetheless, when that ship enters the coastal water of a sovereign, the host sovereign’s gun laws would apply.

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(image courtesy of Andrew Yardley)

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