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Ship captain's Second Amendment rights upheld

Judge cites terror threat in allowing gun

Thursday, August 12, 2004

By TOM QUIGLEY The Express-Times

BELVIDERE -- A Warren County ship captain may carry a concealed weapon in New Jersey waters and ports, state Superior Court Judge John Pursel ruled Wednesday.

The judge cited the post-Sept. 11 world of terrorist threats and the recent rise in the terrorist alert system as part of the reason for his decision to grant the carrying permit.

Authorities fear the ruling could lead to similar requests from other civilians who would normally face a daunting task in obtaining a New Jersey carrying permit -- permits that are tougher to obtain than those in other states, such as Pennsylvania.

"I would submit that it would open a floodgate of future applications," said Warren County Assistant Prosecutor LeeAnn Cunningham in legal paperwork submitted to the court earlier. "For example," Cunningham wrote, "limousine drivers, helicopter pilots, etc. etc." She said recent terrorist threats reported by news outlets involve those specific occupations.

But the judge ruled against the prosecutor's office and granted the carrying permit to Hackettstown resident Salvatore Atanasio Jr. Atanasio may only carry a gun when operating a ship or at port and dock facilities, the judge ruled.

The ship captain had requested a broader permit enabling him to carry a concealed gun at other times, authorities said. Atanasio works for VIP Yacht Cruises and Yacht Charter Networks, both out of Weehawken, N.J., according to court papers. He is a former merchant marine who has operated large passenger ships and other sea vessels during the past 15 years, the judge said in his decision.

"Mr. Atanasio was pretty clear in his testimony that the threats which he faces are real," the judge wrote. Pursel noted the Maritime Security Level for the waters in the New York area is at an all-time high. Cunningham argued in part that New Jersey citizens are not entitled to a carrying permit based only on "generalized fears" or "to protect property."

But the judge found Atanasio's concerns are much broader.

"It is about protecting the public interest by protecting people or the infrastructure in light of the genuine threats which have been disseminated daily to the public," the judge wrote.

The assistant prosecutor argued trained security professionals are available to protect ships. But the judge found Atanasio's qualifications and past training made him the most qualified person to secure a ship since he knows the vessel better than anyone.

Cunningham also questioned the validity of the carrying permit when Atanasio sails into the waters of New York and Connecticut. Atanasio currently commands ships carrying between 150 to 600 passengers on sailings throughout the New York area and along the eastern seaboard, court papers show.

The captain testified the ship's "wheel area" is protected only by a wooden door that could easily be stormed and leave him helpless. The captain said the ships he commands could then be used to ram a larger vessel.

He told the judge it would take the U.S. Coast Guard anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to respond if his vessel were in distress while at sea. A gun would enable him to gain some time until a Coast Guard boat arrived, he argued.

Authorities said the federal Homeland Security Department has made no provision for ships captains to carry a weapon on board. Airline pilots are now permitted to carry guns in the cockpit under specific guidelines.

Warren County Prosecutor Thomas Ferguson said his office will not appeal the judge's ruling. Ferguson said state law does not prevent a ship's captain from obtaining a carrying permit. He said most carrying permits go to former police officers who become involved in private security. "But the statute doesn't limit it to them," he added.

Ferguson said the judge's decision to limit the scope of the carrying permit was a good one. "We're satisfied with the judge's decision and we're going to leave it there," the prosecutor said.

( Reporter Tom Quigley can be reached at 908-475-8184 or by e-mail at tquigley@express-times.com.

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