Carrying Firearms—A Deterrent to Violent Crimes? An Assessment of Armed Security’s Impact on Maritime Piracy

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In the United States, there is a continuing debate about the regulation of and the freedom to own a firearm, and whether this right actually increases or decreases the rate of crime and public safety. There are two sides to the argument: gun-rights advocates argue that the right to bear arms is an essential deterrent to crime and a necessity for self-protection, while the gun-control advocates believe that guns in the wrong hands (or too many guns available) only lead to an increase in crime. This paper attempted to provide an analogous example of the impact of the possession of guns as a deterrent for violent crimes. It is hoped that the results may be applicable to the gun debate in the U.S. In particular, statistical data was examined to determine how the use of Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel (PCASP)—basically, armed security—aboard merchant ships has impacted the number of maritime piracy incidents. The data examined were collected from 1991 to 2013 (August), with a particular interest on any changes in piracy incidents since additional PCASP were approved for ships, early in 2011. The analysis indicated a significant decrease in the number of maritime piracy incidents following the increased use of PCASP—or armed security personnel—on ships prone to attack by pirates. However, there is a need for further study since the data since the implementation of increased PCASP provides a small sample size (less than three years).


In recent years, the debate about gun control laws has reemerged as one of the major topics of discussion and concern (Krouse, 2012a). This comes at a time when the country is continuously inundated by stories in the media about mass violence shootings, unarmed victims, and criminals with access to severely dangerous pieces of equipment. The issue has been put in the national spotlight as many look to economists and other social scientists for answers (Krouse, 2012a). Although there are many cultural reasons as to why certain individuals favor stricter gun-control efforts more than others, a major component for one’s stance in the debate depends on his or her opinion on the effect of such efforts.

To many, the gun-control debate simply comes down to the results of what such control would bring. Advocates of control see guns as a major contributing factor to crime in which the access and availability of firearms facilitate the opportunity for accidents, criminal acts, and violent crime to occur. On the other hand, gun-control opponents argue that guns are in fact a deterrent to crime and that guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens would make society safer (Daynes & Tatalovich, 2005).

If, indeed, guns are a deterrent to crime, then this principle may be applied in other contexts as well, beyond personal security and a sense of wellbeing. For example, the threat of violent boarding of ships at sea—or hijackings and hostage-taking—may be deterred if these ships are protected by the use of Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel (PCASP) aboard merchant ships. This is, in fact, the theory posed in this paper. A review of the background of the issue of gun ownership, as well as a theoretical grounding of the relationship between gun possession and crime prevention, will also be presented. The goal of this presentation is to establish that maritime piracy incidents have diminished since the placement of PCASP on ships at sea was introduced in a large scale manner. Using that as a positive example, this paper also asserts that private possession of guns—as a deterrent—can, in a similar way, work to lower the rate of violent crimes.

The Gun Culture and the Effect of Gun Ownership on Crime

A gun culture has been prevalent in the United States since the time of the first British colonies in New England (Spitzer, 2004). Not surprisingly, then, gun ownership in the United States far exceeds any other country in the world. In fact, it is estimated that there are more privately owned guns in the United States than there are people. Specifically, private gun ownership per 100 people in the United States is estimated to be slightly more than 101 (, 2011; Krouse, 2012b). In contrast, Serbia placed second in national rankings, at 58.21 guns per 100 people, and Serbia is the only other country to break 50 guns per 100 people (, 2011). With such a large number of guns in the hands of private citizens, it is clear why it is such an important issue to many and why it is important to discuss the rationale behind allowing such a large number of guns to accumulate among the general population.

Since the externality associated with private gun ownership is, according to some research, a deterrent for crime, there may be a benefit for allowing such behavior to remain legal. For example, Lott and Mustard (1997) found that allowing citizens to carry firearms deters violent crimes. Additionally, they found that there was no apparent increase in accidental deaths. Lott and Mustard further argued that 1,570 murders, 4,177 rapes, and over 60,000 aggravated assaults could have been avoided had there been an implementation of right-to-carry concealed gun provisions in states where there were none (1997).

Admittedly, the study by Lott and Mustard (1997) is far from universally accepted and has led to numerous counter-studies designed to disprove its conclusions. In fact, there are numerous arguments put forward opposing all right-to-carry laws with nearly all asserting that guns simply create more violence, not less (Kovandzic & Marvell, 2003). Some even propose that criminals’ ignorance of gun laws indicates a lack of concern regarding the possession of guns by citizens. However, while that is a position stated by many (see, e.g., Kovandzic & Marvell), it seems slightly naïve to believe that criminals would not take into consideration whether or not their potential victims were armed. Typically, criminals target someone or someplace because they believe it will be easy, and that would require at least some type of knowledge of their environment.

Theoretical Basis of Gun Ownership and Reduction in Violent Crime

One of the most widely cited concepts used in the support of the right to carry a gun—especially inasmuch as it is a deterrent to violence—is the “expected utility” principle (Kovandzic & Marvell, 2003). Both classical and neoclassical theories in which this principle is discussed assume that criminals are (at least to a certain extent) rational thinkers and will, therefore, avoid certain behaviors if the identifiable risks offset the anticipated benefits (Becker, 1968; Ehrlich, 1973). This is somewhat similar to rational choice theory that also asserts actors will not engage in an activity that they anticipate will result in an outcome detrimental to themselves, as explained by Cornish and Clarke (1986). Based on these theories, an increase in the number of legally held guns (by private citizens as a means of protection) would logically reduce the number of violent crimes committed against those armed citizens. Criminals would simply not want to risk the consequences (Lott & Mustard, 1997).

It is possible that an increase in the number of guns available or, at least owned by individuals with the intent of protecting themselves could also reduce crime by discouraging potential criminal assailants (Kleck, 1997). Criminals may decide against committing a particular crime based on the knowledge (or belief) that the potential victim could be armed and would fight back. In effect, this could also serve as an additional deterrent for future decisions by the criminal, who may be reluctant to make another attempt at crime due to being confronted once by an armed citizen. More importantly, if word is spread in the criminal community that a certain group of people is armed, criminal activity in that area would likely be reduced significantly (Altheimer, 2010). As Altheimer noted, this theory has actually been tested and supported in areas where a greater number of the citizens were armed.

Another applicable theory is called routine activity theory, which was proposed by Cohen and Felson (1979). The purpose of the theory was to counteract what was being proposed by most criminologists, who were primarily concerned with criminal motivation. In contrast, Cohen and Felson (1979) remarked: “Unlike many criminological inquiries, we do not examine why individuals or groups are inclined criminally, but rather we take criminal inclination as given and examine the manner in which the spatio-temporal organization of social activities helps people to translate their criminal inclinations into action” (p. 589). Cohen and Felson believed that there are three elements present in each criminal activity: “(1) a likely or motivated offender; (2) a suitable target; and (3) the absence of capable guardianship.” Routine activities are defined as “recurrent and prevalent activities which provide for basic population and individual needs, whatever their biological or cultural origins” (1979, p. 593). This theory is very applicable to the topic being discussed in this paper, including its application to maritime piracy.

According to Hollis-Peel et al. (2011), the third element listed in routine activity theory—guardianship—implies the presence (usually physical) of one person or several people that serves as a deterrent to the potential (or planned) activity of a criminal (or criminals). As Felson described in the outline of the theory, a guardian “serves by simple presence to prevent crime and by absence to make crime more likely” (1995, p. 53). To add an additional element to that definition, Sampson, Eck, and Dunham (2010) labeled guardians as having “the goal of protecting targets” (p. 39).

Increased Police Presence/Private Security and Crime Reduction

Welsh, Mudge, and Farrington (2010) reported on five studies that specifically addressed the correlation between the use of security guards and decreased criminal activity. The studies took place in four different countries—the UK, the US, Canada, and the Netherlands. These studies were viewed as promising inasmuch as they indicated a possible connection between lower criminal activity around retail establishments and parking garages. Admittedly, the studies were relatively small and so future research was recommended. In particular, these studies were applicable to addressing non-violent crimes.

Additional studies were undertaken to investigate the relationship between increased police presence and criminal activity (Di Tella & Schargrodsky, 2004; Draca, Machin & Witt, 2011; Lin, 2009; Machin & Marie, 2011). In most cases, the presence of police in any given area served as an effective deterrent to most criminal activity. A study by Friedman, Hakim, and Spiegel (1987) examined the similarities and differences between a publicly-funded police force and a private security detail. While the motivations for hiring each may be different, the study found similarities between the effectiveness of both groups on reduction of crime in the area served. A similar study (Lacroix & Marceau, 1995) also confirmed that private security can be an effective deterrent for limiting a number of activities typically undertaken by criminals in specific areas.

More recently, Sarre and Prenzler (2009) explained the historical reasons for an increase in private security personnel and determined that it was based on an increase in crime rates that occurred in the 1970s and 80s. Since crime rates, for the most part, have not been significantly reduced since those years, individuals and organizations have continued to use private security as a means of protecting their assets against criminals. Another motive found was simple self-protection. Sarre and Prenzler also noted a shift away from reliance on public policing and toward privately-funded security. This trend is observed internationally, as a wide variety of reports indicate that private security personnel is very effective in reducing the incidence of crime in the areas they monitor (see, e.g., van Dijk 2008). Obviously, this service is available to the wealthy and not the poor, which further increases the chances that individuals in lower socio-economic communities will become victims of crime.

There is a difference between the duties and responsibilities of public police departments and private security, as described by Blackstone and Hakim (2013). Specifically, police are primarily concerned with a combination of deterrence and punishment and work for the benefit of all the citizens under their jurisdiction. In contrast, private security is only interested in providing protective services for the individual or group that hired (and pays) them. The services provided by a private security team is useful and beneficial in a wide variety of settings, including, as will now be discussed, in the context of protecting ships against the attacks of pirates.

The Problem of Maritime Piracy

The problem of maritime empires is far from unique to the modern era since, as most people are well aware. Indeed, there is evidence that ancient ship owners and sailors were plagued by this criminal activity as early as the fourteenth century B.C. (see, e.g., Heller-Roazen, 2009). However, according to Heller-Roazen, piracy was no doubt in its prime during the roughly three hundred years during the 1500s to the end of the 1700s. During that time period, most European nations, as well as their colonies in the Western hemisphere, were severely affected by the often violent attacks from many pirate ships. Modern piracy bears little resemblance to the stereotypical pirates of centuries ago, however, since pirates today are the result of—in large part—failed governments of countries from which they operate. In addition, modern pirates typically utilize small, fast motorized ships to approach and board much larger ships. Furthermore, piracy today is isolated (generally) to just a few regions of the globe (ICC, 2013a). These areas are primarily located near Africa and parts of Southeast Asia, in addition to some areas of Latin America. Of course, the most notorious pirates operating today are based in Somalia (Silva, 2010).

Maritime piracy focused in the region of the Gulf of Aden has created considerable problems for the shipping industry that must operate in these waters. Subsequently, the cost of operating in this risky and dangerous area has increased significantly for ship operators and caused them to consider a variety of possible methods for defending their ships against pirate attacks (ICC, 2013a). One of the most obvious efforts at defending commercial shipping is an increased presence of naval vessels from concerned nations. According to the ICC (2013a), while navy ships have made an impact at times, the reality is that the area where pirates operate is simply too large for this to be an effective deterrent.

PCASP—A Possible Solution to the Piracy Problem

One alternative solution that is now being utilized and, in fact, recommended by the ICC, is placing armed guards on targeted ships. These security personnel are defined as “privately contracted armed security personnel” (PCASP) (IMO, 2011a, 1). While this method is now being used and is becoming ever more popular, the IMO (2011a) also noted that this should not be a ship owner’s first choice for protecting a vessel and crew. In fact, there are still several concerns expressed related to the risk of having armed security placed on ships at sea. These concerns are very similar to those expressed in the gun control debates currently ongoing in the U.S. Thus, while the use of PCASP is now permitted, it is considered to be a last resort adopted by concerned shippers. In spite of any concerns or debates, according to Isenberg (2012) the trend toward wider usage of PCASP on board ships operating in areas known to be populated by pirates is apparent and only increasing.

Considering its history with piracy hundreds of years ago, it may be expected that the UK is one government taking the lead in promoting the complete legalization of armed security personnel on board ships in dangerous regions of the world (Abeyratne, 2012). Realistically, the issues of liability and personal rights are central to the discussions regarding placement of PCASP on ships to protect them against pirate attacks. However, just as the issue of gun possession went through (and is still confronting) many legal battles, this process is working its way through the legislatures of various countries around the world, as well as the key agencies governing maritime transport (Abeyratne, 2012).

In an effort to provide direction for the shipping industry in their decision-making process related to addressing pirates, most agencies recommend guidelines such as the “Best Management Practices for Protection against Somalia Based Piracy” (Mudric, 2011). These guidelines provide training and instruction for crew members (and captains) of ships that may be at risk of a pirate attack. The bulk of these instructions involve the use of security equipment and crew training. However, other recommendations include more assertive measures such as armed ships that serve as escorts, placing military onboard ships, or employing PCASP. All of these latter elements utilize the threat of force as a specific deterrent against the growing number of maritime piracy incidents (Mudric, 2011).

Analysis of the Data

The data collected and analyzed for this paper was provided by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) (2011a; 2011b; 2013a; 2013b) which is the most widely respected source for information related to maritime piracy incidents. Figure 1 illustrates the trend of maritime piracy incidents between 1984 and 2010—just prior to the agreement to allow PCASP on board ships sailing through regions where pirates are known to operate regularly.

(Figure 1 omitted for preview. Available via download)

The several regions where piracy is an ongoing issue are listed and tracked separately in Figure 1, as well as data providing the worldwide totals. All regions have had peaks and valleys, but in the years from about 2006 to 2010 (for reasons clarified below), the trend has been increasing numbers of pirate attacks. The IMO has the most extensive database that tracks maritime piracy and is also very active in encouraging international action to limit such attacks on shipping.

Specifically, however, the data included for analysis in this paper are from 1991 to 2013 (August) (see Figure 2). While data is available prior to 1991 (as noted in Figure 1), it is far less verifiablethan the data collected later. Also, according to the data that are available prior to 1991, it appears that the number of incidents related to maritime piracy is considerably lower than those reported beginning in 1991. There may be a number of reasons for this, including a lack of consistent reporting of incidents prior to that time, or the possibility that piracy was simply not an issue during those years. At any rate, since the number of incidents of maritime piracy began to increase beginning in the 1990s, it was determined that data from 1991 to 2013 would be most effective for this paper.

(Figure 2 omitted for preview. Available via download)

According to Figure 2, since 1991 (at least until 2013) the number of maritime piracy incidents has never fallen below 200, and typically averaged more than 300 per year. Therefore, in spite of the fluctuations in incidents from year to year—especially over a twenty-year period—it may be possible to identify trends in the data. Initially, Table 1 provides the mean plot as well as the standard deviation of maritime piracy incidents between 1991 and August of 2013. It is clear from this analysis that pirate attacks have occurred, on average, approximately once a day or more (on average) for over twenty years. This is obviously a serious problem. Also, in Table 2, the results of a standard regression analysis are presented indicating the possible trend as revealed in the data pattern. This trend is more clearly represented in Figure 3.

(Figure 3 omitted for preview. Available via download)

(Tables 1 & 2 omitted for preview. Available via download)

The only variable (x-value) included in this analysis was the introduction of PCASP, which occurred early in 2011. Therefore, as indicated in Figure 3, the y-value represents the number of piracy incidents per year; while the x-value represents the data collected from early 2011 onward (through August 2013). The steep downward trend (observed in Figure 2 and Figure 3) started after the 2010 data was collected. This fact may correlate to the introduction—in the early part of 2011—of a significant number of shipping companies hiring “privately contracted armed security personnel (PCASP)” (IMO, 2011a, 1). The linear y-value pictured in Figure 3 as a continual downward sloping trend predicts a tendency for piracy attacks on merchant ships to steadily decrease in frequency. It may be concluded that such a trend will continue, as long as PCASP is operating on ships in the most dangerous regions.

(Figure 3 omitted for preview. Available via download)

Even a cursory view of the data seems to indicate that such incidents dropped dramatically following the placement of armed security on numerous ships. Other shipping companies are planning on following suit as well. At the same time, caution is needed in the interpretation of this data, since the data collected from the introduction of PCASP to the current time is a very small sample size (less than three years).

Indeed, the R-Squared value indicated in Figure 3 is just .0396, which does not provide a high degree of confidence that the downward trend will necessarily continue. Certainly, to provide a solid indication of the impact that the introduction of PCASP across the shipping industry has had on maritime piracy incidents a higher R-value would be preferred. It may simply be too much to ask at this time to come up with solid statistical evidence of this connection, especially considering that the data prior to 2011 were taken from 20 years of history while the latter is simply based on slightly more than two years.

However, based on the observation that the four years prior to the introduction of PCASP as a method of counteracting maritime piracy incidents experienced an increasing number of incidents each year, the data does provide some reason for optimism. Additionally, according to the reporting of the IMO (2013b), the impact that various countries’ navies have had in the regions affected by maritime piracy has been negligible. Since this is one of the very few other options undertaken in an effort to limit the number of piracy incidents in the most troublesome regions of the world, the significant decrease in maritime piracy incidents since 2011 is, quite possibly, the result of the introduction of PCASP. This conclusion may best be confirmed following the collection of several more years of data on maritime piracy incidents. If that data also indicates a continuing downward slope in the linear y-values, a more positive correlation can be made between the introduction of PCASP and a reduction in piracy incidents.

One important element in the increase in the number of maritime piracy incidents in recent years is indicated in Figure 4. Beginning primarily in 2008, attacks perpetrated by Somali pirates became a larger percentage of the total number of piracy incidents. In fact, as shown in Figure 4, by 2011, attacks involving pirates based in Somalia comprised over half of the total number of maritime piracy incidents around the world. Certainly, as these numbers continued to increase, as reported by the IMO, shipping companies, as well as the governments where these ships are based, became increasingly concerned with the safety of the crews and the protection of the cargo. Areas near Somalia, as well as several areas in Asian waters, are the most frequently targeted by pirates. Since the Somali pirates are becoming more daring and dangerous, their actions contributed greatly to the decision to recruit PCASP to protect ships.

(Figure 4 omitted for preview. Available via download)

Conclusions and Recommendations

This paper investigated the issue of whether the threat of violent maritime piracy—or hijackings and hostage-taking—may be deterred if these ships were protected by the use of Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel (PCASP) aboard merchant ships. It was proposed that maritime piracy is reduced as a result of the presence of armed security on board ships, based on a similar concept related to the possession of guns by private citizens as a method of reducing violent crime. This was, in fact, the theory posed in this paper. A review of the background of the issue of gun ownership, as well as a theoretical grounding of the relationship between gun possession and crime prevention, was also presented to support the contention that gun possession, rather than causing more violent crime, actually reduces it due to criminal’s fear of armed citizens. The goal of this presentation was to establish that maritime piracy incidents have diminished since the placement of PCASP on ships at sea was introduced in a large scale manner. Using this as a positive example, this paper also asserted that private possession of guns—as a deterrent—can, in a similar way, work to lower the rate of violent crimes.

Some of the theories that are discussed and applied to research into the possible correlation between private ownership of handguns and the reduction of violent crimes are also applicable in the analysis of reducing maritime piracy. For example, this paper discussed routine activity theory (Cohen & Felson, 1979) which is concerned with factors that are typically present in order for a criminal activity to take place. The similarities between criminal activity that occurs in a community and the types of criminal activity undertaken by maritime pirates are striking. Based on routine activity theory, a criminal will only take action if three specific elements are in place: “(1) a likely or motivated offender, (2) a suitable target, and (3) the absence of capable guardianship” (Cohen & Felson, 1979, p. 593). Thus, criminals in a neighborhood (or bank robbers, rapists, murderers, etc.) are motivated to commit a particular crime. The same is true of pirates, who are well aware of the financial reward for successfully capturing a ship or taking members of the crew hostage. Secondly, the typical criminal will generally carefully select his target before committing a crime. Likewise, pirates identify the most likely ship they can take with the least amount of effort. Finally, the lack of guardianship—or someone prepared to prevent a crime from taking place—makes a criminal’s job easy. Again, when it comes to maritime piracy if a high-value target is left unguarded—with no one present, armed and willing to protect that ship—the pirates will make quick work of that target.

Consequently, utilizing the theory of routine activity, and especially its concept of the guardian, may be instrumental in establishing the causality of a drop in maritime piracy incidents after the implementation of armed security—PCASP—on many ships traveling through dangerous regions where pirates typically operate. This is similar to the results found in other studies related to individuals who acted as guardians and effectively deterred criminal activity from taking place. According to Hollis-Peel et al. (2011), guardianship implies the presence (usually physical) of one person or several people that serves as a deterrent to the potential (or planned) activity of a criminal (or criminals). As Felson described in the outline of the theory, a guardian “serves by simple presence to prevent crime and by absence to make crime more likely” (1995, p. 53). To add an additional element to that definition, Sampson, Eck, and Dunham (2010) labeled guardians as having “the goal of protecting targets” (p. 39).

Certainly, if individuals are not armed, the mere presence of a person or group of people does not serve to prevent a crime from taking place. Pirates are well aware that there are crew members on board the ships they target and, in many cases, the crew may outnumber the pirates. However, since the pirates carry weapons, they do not hesitate to attack a ship with a crew they know to be unarmed. Indeed, until the recent ruling by the IMO (2011a) allowing the use of PCASP on board commercial shipping vessels, pirates knew that it was illegal for the crews to have weapons. That knowledge was one of the major factors leading to the significant increase in maritime piracy incidents in the years leading up to 2011. Similarly, if criminals in a neighborhood are aware that none of the citizens are armed, there is little disincentive to avoid criminal activity, perhaps even violent crimes. Conversely, how would those same criminals act if they were aware—or even suspected—that most, if not all, the residents of a particular community had a gun (or guns) and were prepared to use it to protect their family and/or property?

Studies have found conflicting results in that regard, but sufficient evidence exists to suggest that there is certainly a potential deterrent against crime when individuals are armed. In this study, it is also possible to imply a likely link between the introductions of armed security on many ships operating in regions where pirate attacks are likely and the evident reduction in the number of piracy incidents. While this link cannot be established conclusively from the data analyzed here, and further research is warranted and recommended, the potential benefits of using more PCASP is promising. Just as limiting the number of guns held by the public is not the solution to solving the problem of violent crime in the country, leaving unarmed crew members at the mercy of armed and violent pirates is not a proper solution either.


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