Alaska Bans Carrying Guns On Its Ferry Boats…Is That Constitutional?

Alaska ferry boat

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Recently, I was looking at options for visiting Alaska. It’s a real bucket list item, and I’d like to take an epic trip from Key West to the North Slope in Alaska, from the southernmost point you can drive to in the U.S. to the northernmost point. But I’d like to do something a little more chill on the way back to the lower 48. I want to load my weird car on a ferry and take it easy for a few days on the way down to Seattle.

It wasn’t long, though, before I found something that’s even worse than Canadian gun laws (which you can work with/around if you use a pump action rifle with a removable magazine). The Alaska Marine Highway System has a strict “no guns” policy, except for weapons that are checked with the ship’s crew or locked inside a vehicle.

I know some readers will be like, “They do this on cruise ships all the time. Why worry?” But there’s a big difference between the Alaska ferry and cruise ships…namely, who owns and operates the boats. The Alaska ferry is state-owned, which gives it obligations that a private carrier isn’t subject to. Obligations such as complying with the Second Amendment.

Under the recent NYSRPA v Bruen decision, a government policy against he lawful carry of firearms isn’t constitutional if all the government agency can come up with for a rationale is “interest balancing,” or basically claiming that they really, really have a good reason for their ban. With Bruen the law of the land, they have to prove through the text, history and tradition of the Second Amendment, and how it was understood around the time of the founding, that their restrictive policy is constitutional.

The only way to prove that a violation of gun rights was acceptable to the ratifiers of the Constitution is to show that such a policy was the norm at the time, and not either the exception or something that just didn’t happen in those days before “progressives” decided to do whatever they wanted, Constitution be damned.

So, the real question isn’t whether the state of Alaska thinks it’s a good idea to ban guns on the ferries it operates. The only thing that matters is whether banning the carrying of guns on ships was common practice in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

I’ve done a fair bit of looking, and couldn’t find any law that banned guns on passenger ships from the era.

When researching weapons on ships, one thing that consistently popped up in searches was the controversy over shootings on the Titanic, in which at least one passenger shot a White Star Line ship’s officer and it seems likely that several ship’s officers then shot and killed passengers as the ship was sinking in the north Atlantic.

But dead men tell no tales, and there’s not much to go on there. However, a manual for White Star Line passengers with detailed rules for Second Class passengers mentions no firearms prohibition, nor does it have information about any sort of security searches upon boarding. Firearms weren’t banned in the UK even as late as the early 20th century. One White Star Line officer admitted to carrying a personally-owned Browning semi-automatic pistol, and fired it to defend a lifeboat from the mobs instead of using a company-issued Webley revolver.

I’m sure that with more searching, a lawyer representing the Alaska DOT could probably find some obscure scattered examples of gun bans on government-owned passenger ships during or around the founding, but that’s not enough. It had to have been a common and normal practice. From by searching, that doesn’t seem to have been the case.

Another argument that might be made to defend the ban is that the ships pass through Canadian waters, which is true. But, that isn’t the same as going to Canada.

From what I could gather from a court case involving a crime committed on one of the ferries, international law treats U.S. flagged vessels operating in Canadian waters as U.S. territory unless Canada specifically asserts jurisdiction. They don’t have any cause to assert jurisdiction under international law, nor have they attempted to.

The ships remain U.S. territory, then, under the law and Alaska state laws apply on the vessels, perhaps even in proximity to Washington State.

I’m no lawyer. But, from what I could figure out, the State of Alaska doesn’t have any business banning guns on their ferries, and should stop this practice immediately. If they don’t, it’s probably time for us to take them to court and make them do the right thing.

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