State Dep’t & USCG Respond to Suez Canal Firearms Prohibition

It has been reported that, about two months ago, the Suez Canal Authority began enforcing a prohibition on merchant vessels transiting the Canal with firearms on board. A vessel with weapons is now required to hand them over to Egyptian authorities, who then cause the firearms to be driven to the other end of the Canal, where the guns are returned to the ship. In addition to other problems, the new policy places US vessels in violation of the export licenses they obtained from the State Department for the firearms, since the weapons leave the ship while she transits the Canal.

For those not initiated into the intricacies of US arms export control law, taking firearms1 on a commercial vessel leaving the US is deemed an export of the weapons under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), even though the weapons are for self-defense against pirates and will be brought back to the US when the ship returns. As a result, shipping companies usually have obtained Temporary Export Licenses for their self-defense weapons. These licenses have required that the weapons remain on board the vessel in question all the time. Thus, if the ship won’t give up her weapons, she can’t go through the Canal, but, if she does surrender the firearms temporarily, she’s in violation of the export license. This could result in fines and/or license revocation.

The State Department’s Office of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC), which is responsible for the ITAR, has decided how to handle this situation and the Coast Guard has promulgated the guidance in Revision 4 of Port Security Advisory (PSA) 4-09, “INTERNATIONAL TRAFFIC IN ARMS REGULATIONS (ITAR).” PSA 4-09 Revision 4 differs from the previous version in that the following paragraph has been added:

For vessels likely to transit the Suez Canal, the DDTC recommends that DSP-73 applications for a temporary export license should list both Port Said Shipping and Navigation Company and the Egyptian Customs Authority as “Temporary Foreign Intermediate Consignees” in block 18. Companies with DSP-73s already approved should submit an amendment (DSP-74) to their existing license to add these two parties. This will help ensure compliance with regulatory requirements.

This fix is fine as far as it goes, but what of other countries that adopt similar policies for the custody of weapons while US-flag vessels are in their territories? For example, it has been reported that the UAE has indicated it will require any firearms to be transferred to government custody via small boat before a merchant vessel’s entry into port. Presumably, a license amendment application listing as a “Temporary Foreign Intermediate Consignee” whatever entity the UAE government designates to take custody of such weapons would be acted on favorably by the DDTC. If more countries adopt such policies, however, applications could get quite lengthy and it is often hard to predict well in advance what countries a ship may need to visit. Perhaps DDTC could become comfortable with a more generic formulation such as “any entity designated by foreign government to take custody of the weapons while the ship is in that government’s territory.”

To access the full text of PSA 04-09 (Rev. 4)), go to Homeport, click on “Counter Piracy” under “Featured Homeport Links” at the top of the right side of the page. On the Counter Piracy page, scroll down to and click on “PSA 4-09 (Rev 4): International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).” That will provide a PDF link to click on to actually get PSA 04-09 (Rev. 4).


1 Except for shotguns with barrels over 18 inches long (other than those “with certain combat features”), the export of which is regulated by the Department of Commerce.

Tip of the Hat: I learned of this Revision from my good friend Dennis Bryant’s most excellent information resource, Bryant’s Maritime Blog.

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By Professional Mariner Staff