You got five seconds to apologize to me


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By Neal Matthews

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"You got five seconds to apologize to me."

Brent Clingman couldn't believe he was hearing this. On the sun-glazed Sea of Cortez an obnoxious American in a 26' sportfisher named Key Largo had just cut between Clingman's anchored 18-foot skiff and the rocky shore of San Marcos Island, tangling up fishing lines on both boats. Clingman had reeled in and cut the mess loose, saw no reason to apologize, and said so.

Now Clingman, a San Diego fishing tackle manufacturer, couldn't believe what he was seeing. Key Largo's owner, an attorney from Arizona, "reached into a bag, pulled out a stainless steel shotgun, aimed it right at me, and fired."

The instant the gun appeared, Clingman and his fishing buddy hit the deck. Buckshot tore through a line of rods near the center console, blowing three in half. Key Largo's Mexican fishing guides could be heard cackling as they hauled ass back toward Guaymas, 60 miles across the Gulf of California.

Clingman rushed into Santa Rosalia on the Baja coast to report the attempted murder, and when Key Largo reached port the federales were waiting. It cost the lawyer several thousand dollars to extricate himself and his boat from Mexico, where gun possession by foreigners is a serious offense. It cost Clingman his sense of well-being on the water.

Gunboat Nation

Clingman's run-in with armed idiocy in April, 1993 spotlights a question most boaters will eventually face: With all the boats out there packing heat, should I be carrying a gun for protection? In addition to the usual hordes of itchy-trigger-fingered lobstermen, oystermen, and gillnetters, the majority of recreational shark fishermen carry guns nowadays, as do many long-range cruisers, weekend gunkholers, and skeet-shooting day trippers. Though no statistics are available on how many boaters are armed, with 200 million firearms circulating in the U.S., chances are pretty good that at least some of those boats anchored at your favorite fishing hole last weekend held firepower.

Interviews with water cops, pistol-packing cruisers, gun dealers, and fishermen indicate that the majority of long range cruisers and liveaboards are probably armed now, and the presence of guns is growing among boaters who roam more than a couple miles offshore. With so many guns on the water, it's time to wonder: Is my family at risk on those Sunday sojourns across the bay? Is there really something to be afraid of, like piracy or boatloads of drunks or crazed lawyers from Arizona? Am I risking my life or the lives of my family by not carrying a gun?

For fishing in the Everglades and other swampy sections of the South where 'gators glide, the answer is obvious. And the pull of the last frontier, the open sea where citizens can freely blast away for the sheer funny hell of it without endangering any living thing has always been a legitimate reason for boating with guns. But the main reason boaters are arming themselves these days -- personal protection -- marks a sea-change in the boating life.

But not everywhere. In contrast to the South and West, guns on board are almost unheard of in the Great Lakes. The proximity to Canada, which severely penalizes gun possession, has a lot to do with that. Plus, "We just don't have to worry so much about personal protection up here," says Don Williamson, a longtime Great Lakes cruiser based in upper Michigan.

South of the Mason-Dixon line is another story. "We expect to find a weapon on every boat, and we find them on almost every boat," says Detective Tony Romano of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Department, which covers the north shore of Louisiana's Lake Pontchartrain. "It's the perception of vulnerability, more than the reality. You can be 15 miles from any soul on Earth, and it's up to you alone to protect your family."

In Florida, according to Miami P.D. marine officers, the boaters who carry handguns break down into two groups: the bad guys who are up to no good, and the cruisers, which together make up a large percentage of Florida water traffic. Sportfish vessels tend toward rifles. Cautions Florida Marine Patrol Captain Mike Lamphere, "We don't recommend that people carry a gun on board, but we understand why they might want to."

Pirate stories abound around Florida docks, regardless of what the experts say -- that piracy aimed at pleasure boats near U.S. shores is rare, especially since drug routes in South Florida have been pushed up from the water into the skies in the last ten years. And although some pirate stories are real, it's doubtful the possession of guns by the victims would have saved them.

In January, 1994, four people were found murdered in a motoryacht anchored off Barbuda, a small island popular with cruisers 300 miles southeast of Puerto Rico. The victims, two Englishmen and two Americans, were found bound and gagged below deck on the 65-foot Computacentre Challenger, where they'd been robbed and shot. After a three-week investigation assisted by Scotland Yard, stolen cigars found in a canoe in Barbuda were linked to the yacht. A suspect led police on the island to buried traveler's checks, a purse, and personal papers belonging to the victims. Last February a judge in Antigua sentenced two local men to hang for the murders.

In March of 1995, a family from Lemon Grove near San Diego was fishing in the Pacific about 15 miles below the Mexican border when a panga skiff approached their 21-foot sportfisher. The American skipper reported to the Coast Guard that all of a sudden the water erupted as six heavily armed men in the panga opened fire with at least 200 rounds from automatic weapons.

The armed men drew alongside and boarded the American vessel, telling the family they were federal police agents but showing no badges. (According to the International Maritime Bureau, which tracks piracy worldwide, corrupt police or police impersonators are a common element in boat hijackings, especially in Third World countries.) With eleven people on board, six of them packing both rifles and handguns, the family was driven around Descanso Bay for 45 minutes while the "agents" ostensibly searched for another boat carrying drugs. When the sportfisher's engine began overheating, the hijackers used their guns to wave over a Mexican fishing vessel, took it over, and bid the shaken Americans adios. The Coast Guard, the State Department, and the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana got involved in the investigation of the incident, but no suspects were ever identified.

If the Americans had had a gun on board and tried to use it, they'd probably be dead. Many cruisers believe carrying a gun can only make a piracy situation worse. Others subscribe to the Michael Corleone theory of come-out-blasting. "I know of people who tape pistols in hidden places in their boats' heads, in case they're taken hostage," explains freelance skipper J.P. Thies of Southern Florida. "They figure the one place pirates will let them go alone is to the bathroom."

But the fear seems outsized in relation to the reality. "We haven't heard any pirate stories lately," Capt. Lamphere reports. Inquiries with the NRA, which keeps meticulous records of gun use in self defense, turned up no gunplay on the water. While lobstermen and other commercial fishermen trade shots occasionally over disputed fishing grounds, marine patrol officers on both coasts say armed encounters among pleasureboaters are virtually nonexistent.

Still, the terrestrial insecurity that stubbornly defies all evidence of falling crime rates isn't easily left behind at the dock. In South Carolina, Lt. Sumter Moore of the Department of Natural Resources Enforcement Division warns, "In my personal opinion, anybody who doesn't carry a gun when transiting these waters is out of his mind, with all the lowlifes around here. The bottom line is, if I investigate a situation where somebody has been anchored in the Waccamaw River and they blow away somebody trying to come aboard and do them harm, I'm not going to be the one to issue them a citation for protecting their own family." But again, Moore says reports of firearm incidents on boats in South Carolina waters are extremely rare. He credits the widespread presence of guns for keeping the peace.

Cops on both coasts harbor no illusions about being able to protect boaters. "People who say they never carry a gun have never been a victim," says Officer Roy Huntington, a marine patrolman with a large metropolitan police department in Southern California. "We had a couple people last year tell us some guy followed them all the way down the coast from Newport. I can't tell you how many people have said to me, 'I sure was glad I had that gun on board.'"

Huntington says guns, or some other kind of defensive weapon, should be regarded as just another essential piece of boating equipment, like flares or life preservers. "less than lethal force options have to be considered," he argues, "such as pepper spray. But if you've made the decision to accept responsibility for your family's safety, why not cover that last option too?"

Boaters obviously shouldn't buy a gun unless they're going to take classes on how to use it, learn the local regulations on concealed weapons and use of deadly force, buy a lockbox or trigger-lock for it, and practice with it on the water. While arming yourself to go out and play on a boat may seem incongruous -- even a little nutty -- Huntington argues that once you've mastered a gun, whether it's a rifle, shotgun, or pistol, you've actually reduced the risk of dangerous confrontations.

"Boats full of drunks -- we call them 415's -- one guy will cut somebody off, everybody starts screaming at each other four miles offshore, this can be dangerous," Huntington explains. Owning a gun, and knowing that it can only be used to protect your life or the lives of your family, can defuse these situations, even though the gun never leaves its locked compartment. "The gun gives you a level of self confidence, makes you able to turn the other cheek more easily, because you have the final say. You're not in terror, so you can react calmly. It gives you a way to say, 'I'm sorry, here's 20 bucks to replace your anchor line,' and drive away."
When Don Emerson was living on his boat in the late 1980's, "Every soul at the marina in Bradenton, Florida, had a gun, and one guy was armed like a battleship." Emerson was unusual. He had to use his sawed-off Ithaca .12 gauge three times, and it worked, even though it was never loaded.

One night he was cruising alone across the Gulf of Mexico from Mobile, Alabama to Tarpon Springs, Florida. It was 1 a.m. when he dropped anchor about a mile offshore at Anclo Key. He'd just come through a big storm and was bone-tired, too exhausted even to sleep. So he sat on deck under a clearing sky.

"All of a sudden I see a sailboat, with no lights, getting closer and closer. Somebody was paddling it towards me," says Emerson, who is now retired in Americus, Georgia. "He was staring at my boat. I just reached down into the companionway, grabbed the shotgun, and racked it. Everybody in the world understands that sound. The boat drifted to a stop, turned all the way around, and disappeared into the night. If he'd come any closer, I'd have loaded up and blown the bow off his Chlorox bottle."

Emerson did the same thing on the water in broad daylight near downtown St. Petersburg, when a boatload of hooligans was harassing him and throwing beer cans at his boat. He racked his unloaded shotgun and the louts disappeared. "It's like dealing with a mad dog," he reflects. "If you show you're scared, you're gonna get bit."

Of course, waving a gun around at a bunch of drunks can backfire. Cops who draw down on miscreants often are met with a defiant, "What are you gonna do now? Shoot me? Go ahead, shoot me!" If you pull a gun on a loudmouth who just rode over your anchor line, you've played your last card. "And the guy you're pointing the gun at can now legally shoot you, because you're threatening his life with a gun," Officer Huntington points out. Firearms experts say you should never point a gun at someone unless your next step is to blow them away. And the only time that's legally justifiable is if your life depends on it.

Emerson says his gun of choice was always a shotgun, "because I'm such a lousy shot with a pistol." He sprayed it once a month with WD-40 and dismantled it once a year for cleaning.

Other Southern boaters such as Jim Acheson, who lives full time on his Pacemaker 57 near Lighthouse Point, Florida, and cruises frequently to the Bahamas, carry both shotguns and handguns. "I have a Walther PPK, the stainless steel James Bond gun with a 7-round clip, that was recommended to me by a North Carolina judge," says Acheson, who also teaches a course on cruise planning. He keeps the pistol in a nightstand onboard. "I tell my classes, Don't carry a gun unless you're prepared to use it. If somebody's boarding you with a knife, are you willing to put a hole in them? I would, yes."

Acheson says most cruisers do end up carrying a gun, except on the Great Lakes. It's generally recommended in the Caribbean and farther south, although foreign Customs authorities don't cotton to handguns or military-style rifles, and if you're caught with a firearm in Mexican waters your boat can be confiscated. Every cruiser has to make a choice on whether or not to declare his guns. Acheson says the British Virgin Islands will confiscate your weapons until you leave, but the Bahamian authorities will let you keep them, as long as you declare what you have, and how much ammunition you're carrying.

Regarding ammunition, gun experts say it should be stored in sealed bags or boxes in the coolest, driest place on the boat, and replaced every six months. Ideal conditions are 60-degree temperature and 30 percent humidity, the military's ammo storage specs. "But it's the constant changing of temperature and humidity that does the damage," explains Clinton Van Der Pool, owner of A.A. Lock and Gun in Ft. Lauderdale.

Van Der Pool has been manning a booth at the Lauderdale Boat Show for 20 years, and sells a lot of guns to boaters. He says shotguns are popular, especially the stainless steel or nickel plated marine specialty .12 gauges made by Winchester, Remington, and Mossberg. He's not a great fan of pistols -- "Handguns are for committing suicide and robbing 7-11s" -- especially on boats. He argues that people are born terrible shots, and need the accuracy and range of a rifle. The most effective gun for boaters, he claims, is the Ruger mini-14 carbine. "It doesn't kick much, you can use it with one hand while you steady yourself with the other, it holds bunches of bullets, and it'll go a long way," says Van Der Pool.

Another good reason for choosing a rifle over a handgun is the legal hassles involved in carrying pistols, especially when cruising across state lines. (Rifles and shotguns on board are generally ignored by the law.) Northeast states like Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey have strict handgun laws requiring concealed weapons permits to transport pistols. Violators can net a hefty fine and up to five years behind bars.

Carrying a loaded weapon in a vehicle is illegal almost everywhere, and boats are generally considered vehicles. But if you're cruising (sleeping on board), many states -- but not all -- will consider the boat your residence, and it's legal to possess both handguns and long guns, loaded or not, at home. About the only universal truth among the various states' gun laws is that individual cops have a lot of discretion when it comes to confiscating and/or arresting people for firearms violations.

If you want to carry a gun on board, it's your responsibility to know the law in your area, and in the regions through which you'll be cruising. You should always carry the sales receipt too, as this is usually considered proof of the gun's "registration." State gun laws are changing fast, and enforcement -- and penalties -- can vary wildly from state to state.

For instance, in Connecticut you need a handgun permit issued by the state to carry a pistol, whether you're a cruiser or liveabord, according to Lt. Joe Savino of the Bridgeport P.D. Marine Unit, which patrols out to the state line in Long Island Sound. "Someone coming into Connecticut waters from New York carrying a handgun, loaded or not, would be in violation," Savino declares. The penalties for the felony include fines up to $1000 and not more than five years in jail.

But down in Florida it's legal to have a gun in your vehicle, loaded or not, as long as it's safely secured in a zippered or locked case. Capt. Lamphere says gun laws in Florida come down to simple common sense. "If the handgun is concealed within easy reach, then it's a problem. A 40-foot Chris Craft with a loaded .45 next to the bed is different from 17-foot runabout with a .38 in the tackle box."

Dinosaur Hunting

Whether boaters who carry guns should practice with them on the water is a touchy subject. Most experienced gun people blanched when I told them I was going to explain how to set up an on-the-water gun range for target practice. "Unless you're in a controlled environment, specifically set aside for shooting on the water, you shouldn't do it," insists Detective Romano of Louisiana, a police academy firearms instructor. "An AK-47 round can kill at three miles. And you should never, ever shoot on a lake."

Dave DeLay, a Southern California fireman who uses his 23-foot Sea Ray for shark fishing, and has vanquished many a shark with his .44 Special, also thinks target shooting on the water is too dangerous. "Firearms and moving vehicles are bad combinations," he says. On VHF radio, he's heard a lot of shark fishermen threaten to shoot each other, and has been threatened himself by overheated anglers, which makes him extra gun-shy. "The more you use a weapon on a boat," says DeLay, "the higher the chance you're gonna have a problem. Bullets do weird things on flat surfaces. High

speed bullets can skip for miles. You should get to know your gun on dry land, at a range."

Police Officer Huntington is just as adamant the other way. "You need to practice where you're going to be using it," he insists. "Or you at least need dry-fire practice on board. It's not like this is a new idea. Go out any day and you can hear gunfire across the water."

So out we go one clear spring morning off San Diego. The Anduril, a 36-foot Uniflite sportfisher skippered by Bernie Updike, a 10-year veteran SWAT officer, heads west for about eight miles. Also on board are Huntington and Gene Wolberg, a forensic firearms criminalist, and a small arsenal of handguns, shotguns, and rifles. For targets we're hauling some watermelons, honeydews, and three pinatas I picked up in Tijuana: a giant baseball, soccer ball, and a purple Barney.

We don't have to go far to legally fire the weapons -- only a few hundred yards to clear the San Diego city limits -- but to be safe Updike takes us out toward the blue water, where no other boats are in sight.

Updike kills the engines and lets the boat drift. As Huntington and Wolberg start organizing the weapons and ammunition in the salon -- in a training session, no gun should be loaded until you're ready to use it -- Updike explains the four basic safety rules of a gun range:

-- Treat every weapon as if it's loaded.

-- Never point a gun at anything unless you want to destroy it.

-- Keep your finger off the trigger unless actually engaging a target.

-- Be aware of your target, backstop, and beyond.

To which Wolberg adds a fifth rule for boaters: "Never handle a gun if you've been drinking."

And a sixth: "The presence of kids changes the whole equation. Don't fire with kids on board, make sure the ammunition is separated from the weapons, and the weapons are all locked away."

After watching the way the boat is drifting, Updike starts the engines briefly to turn the stern seaward. He wants us to shoot off the back of the boat, away from land, on the theory that any vessels that approach our area are more likely to be coming from inside rather than outside. Then he takes his position as Range Safety Officer above us on the flying bridge. "There's always got to be somebody not shooting, overseeing everything," he explains.

Only one person is allowed to shoot at a time, and everybody wears ear protectors. Huntington hands me a Smith and Wesson Model 65 .38 Special, a six-shot stainless steel revolver, typical of a police officer's gun. It costs about $500 new, maybe $150 used. "This is a real good boat gun," he says, offering several pointers on how to hold it with two hands and aim it. "It needs a good long trigger pull."

Although the seas aren't that rolly, Huntington stands behind me with his hand grasping my belt, for extra stability, and I'm ready to go ballistic.

I empty the revolver down into the water about ten feet behind the boat, just to get the feel of its kick. The last time I shot a gun was in boot camp a couple decades back, which was the last time I'd experienced that feeling of instant and ultimate power in the palm of my hand. It's a wonderful feeling, and frightening at the same time, as this is the intoxicating courage implant so many of the wrong kind of people seem to crave.

Given all the warnings I'd heard about trying to hit a moving target from a pitching boat, I'm surprised at the accuracy of my aim. Floating honeydews aren't hard to hit at fifteen feet. It wouldn't take that much practice to get pretty good with this gun.

We progress on through semi-automatic handguns, including a Glock 17 and a .45 Colt Automatic Pistol. Although they're a blast to shoot, these are not guns for novices. It takes a much higher level of firearms experience to safely handle the semi-autos, plus they're expensive. The Colt, highly modified by the Wilson Combat pistol smiths, is a $2500 gun. To become proficient quickly, go with the six-shooter.

Huntington hands me a Remington Model 870 .12 gauge pump action shotgun, a former California Highway Patrol weapon. "This is an ideal boat gun," he says. It holds four shells of shot or slugs, and looks as serious as a hearse. "The beauty of a slug is, you put a hole through the other guy's hull at the waterline and he's got something else to worry about."

You have to rack this gun to put a shell in the chamber. I pull back on the pump and that beautiful/awful chu-clak carries out toward the watermelon target. I sight-in and squeeze, and I'm shocked at the violence of the kick against my shoulder. It takes a second to realize the watermelon has been obliterated. Awesome. We all howl with delight in our grownup freedom to play with fire.

When we finally get down to the semi-automatic rifles, everyone's anxious to take shots at poor Barney. By now I'm fairly comfortable spraying lead, even though a few shots have indeed gone skipping like rocks for fifty or sixty yards. We wait a few minutes for a fog bank to clear in the distance, in case it's hiding a boat, then I start blasting away with an AR-15 Sporter.

It has almost no kick. The sleek, high velocity bullets tear through Barney's purple crepe paper body, but he continues to bob happily tail-up/nose-down on the blue-green sea. Somebody sings, "I wuv you, you wuv me," as I have way too much fun pumping bullets into Barney's wumpus. This would be a good boat gun, as you could use it with one hand if you had to, though it would be difficult to hit a dinosaur that way.

When all the ammo is fluttering toward the bottom of the sea, it becomes clear why carrying a gun on board a boat might be a good idea. Not for protection -- it would require some serious paranoia to be actively worried about forced boardings or waterborne assaults in U.S. waters. The best reason to carry a gun on a boat is just for the sheer fun of being able to fire it toward an empty horizon, and if it comes in handy some night against a bad guy that would be gravy. And therein lies the source of the firearms dilemma. Guns are just too much fun for our own good.



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