While planning to sail the open seas and visiting other countries, I have decided to take a personal firearm. Owning and carrying a personal firearm is legal in my home state. What would be the proper procedures upon entering ports around the world. Could I expect my firearm to be confiscated permanently? Temporarily? Would having a lockable firearm safe aboard be acceptable?
As owner of a yacht there is no problem. I have been in contact with Bobby Schenk, a well-known German open-sea sailor who writes about problems on board, in your case firearms.
As owner of your boat the relevant law for possessing and storing weapons is your country of origin, in your case USA, more specifically your state law. I suppose you have all relevant documents like firearms certicate etc. etc. They will be needed.
After traveling into a port you will get a formular with an entry "Firearms". There you declare all your firearms (and ammunition, whatever). The next step depends on the given country.
Some countries confiscate the weapons and ammunition and store them until you leave the port again. There is no country which won't give them out again, even Japan and UK.
Some countries simply seal the weapons so they can see if the weapon was used, but it remains on board.
Some countries simply say: "Do not take it from board and keep it safe !". Nothing more.
If you hide a gun on board and it will be found, you are in deep trouble. This can and will be judged (rightfully !) as gun running, your boat will be very likely confiscated and you face severe penalties. There is simply no reason to do it.
I think I do not need to explain that you are bound by the laws of the country in which your port is => No weapons outside the boat.
For firearms itself: Against a speedboat with a dozen heavily armed pirates resistance is futile, but against one or several poor (meaning: no money) stragglers who are lightly armed firearms may be a necessity. Hand guns are not recommended: In panic and fear you will not be able to get exact shots, even on the torso. Then again, even if you hit them with deadly force, they could be fully able to retaliate or reach you for a few seconds or even a minute (!) on a very constricted space. The standard option is a pump-action shotgun with buckshots, but the buckshots must have plastic cartridges because paper cartridges swell on board and cause jamming.
EDIT: I see that I must dispel myths.
The first one is stop believing Hollywood Bullshit where one MAN fights an entire army and wins. This is complete and utter crap. We have known pirate areas in Colombia, Lagos, Somalia and Indonesia and these are the pirates I mean with "speedboat attack". These types enter well-armed container ships driving under full speed and gaining millions by blackmailing and dealing stolen goods. The win will be invested for better equipment. They are equipped with fully automatic AK-47/AK-74 assault rifles, RPG-7 rocket propelled grenade launchers and some have even the M2 machine gun. While these types of pirates are targeting container ships they do not mind entering yachts. Yachties either evade these areas or are sailing after warships. If you still do not believe, ask someone from the Navy what he/she thinks about your beliefs.
The other myth is that there should be no weapons on board. There is no police at international waters which you can ask for help, you are completely on your own. And then are those guys which are poor and without gun, but have a knife or machete and intend to rob or kill you. You do not need to use a gun, simply showing it from the distance means that the game is over, they will be dead if they continue. The time you actually use your gun will be e.g. to kill a shark which locked his jaws into your rudder or to give acoustic signals (Your fellows are swimming, out of earshot and not looking in your direction).
If you have for whatever reason no gun and need to throw back an attack, Molotov cocktails are the best improvised weapon you have.
ADDITION: Regarding the answer from Tripod McGillicuddy I do not find a shotgun "absolutely hilarious", in contrast I think that for most people (!) buying and using an assault rifle or submachine gun is actually a bad decision.
Let's look at the environment:
The ground is not stable, even on a relatively big catamaran. If you hold a laser pointer still from a boat, you see the rocking motion. Now visualize how magnified this motion is if you point a gun at a target several hundred meters away (Tripod confirms it that it is very hard to hit a target in this range). So a gunfight from a distance against armed pirates is a very, very dumb strategy, wasting ammunition and putting you on a severe disadvantage from the start (Several shooters against one). So me and Tripod both agree that trying to fight a moderate-sized pirate gang is suicidal.
Missing protection. If you are not on a steel yacht, both 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm rounds easily penetrate fiberglass. So if you are not alone, it is very possible that you are actually hurt and kill fellow passengers.
Support: Shotgun shells are much easier to acquire than typical assault rifle rounds (7.62 / 5.56 mm). In many countries the type of ammunition is actually outlawed.
The sea is an unforgiving environment for equipment. Salt water is corrosive and every yachtsman/-woman can tell you stories about repairs. Every delicate piece of equipment is prone to malfunction and an assault rifle has delicate parts: It must load a bullet, fire it and eject it. So yachtsmen who are not soldiers are likely to neglect firearms and end up with a jamming and therefore useless weapon.
Once people realize that they are in a life-endangering situation, their body reacts by pumping adrenaline in their body. While this increases strength, contracts blood vessels (bleeding) and mobilizes energy reserves, it also means loss of fine motor control. Translation: You cannot aim reliably anymore. You also are prone to panic.
I still recommend a short range, extremely robust and forgiving weapon which makes it easy to aim and hit and which does not overstrain unexperienced users. It combines manstopping power with small penetration = shotgun. The purpose of the weapon is not to fight pirates, but to deter and eventually fight opportunity seekers when unexperienced users have a realistic chance of success.
Military personnel in contrast have a different background. They are used to handle and attend weapons properly and use them in stress situations with years of experience. They are able to use weapon properties to their full advantage (fire rate, penetration) and handle any problems in time (jamming). So yes, I can fully understand that from their viewpoint a shotgun seems a bit ridiculous.
As a retired SEAL I find the comments regarding weapon selection absolutely hilarious. If you want a standoff weapon own and know how to use an M4 / AR variant. In regards to the legality of possessing that rifle while cruising TALK TO A MARITIME ATTORNEY (and keep his card lol). The realities of the pirate situation are such that you are going to lose a running fight against any moderately armed motivated group of pirates. You are more than likely in a fiberglass boat........do the friggin math man. You have ZERO chance against an RPG with any selected projectile. One anti personnel round will not only turn you into a soup sandwich it will leave your boat in pieces not to mention anti tank rounds. Who's going to pilot the boat while you Rambo it out with two skiffs full of skinnies? Or are you going to lay to so you can lay the hate down thus leaving yourself a relatively stationary target? Or maybe you're going to ask your wife or child to pilot in the middle of a fire fight? The best possible solution is to NOT GO WHERE THE PIRATES ARE! If you think a shotgun is ANY protection against pirates you're wrong. You will be dead 300 yards before you can even engage. If you think a skinny with an RPK or PKM isn't a capable opponent you're gravely mistaken and you and your family will suffer the consequences. Even with an AR you are done before it even starts. Its not worth it partner. Just don't go where the pirates are. If you want to carry a firearm by all means skin that smoke wagon but don't think for a second that you are going to deter pirates with it. Doing shit like that makes a lot of work for guys like me. Take a few minutes to look at some of the video on YouTube of professional maritime contractors (read retired SEALS or similar) engaging pirates. The skinnies more often than not just keep coming. Why? Because they don't realize they are being engaged (it's loud on a fast moving skiff). The other reason is they know damn well how hard they are to hit. Don't put your family into a situation that you aren't trained or equipped to handle. The world is an unfair vicious place. Just stay in waters that are relatively safe.
Don't do it. As long as you stay within American waters, you are ok (I suggest keeping a copy of your gun permit with you). While you are in international waters, you are probably still ok. However as soon as you cross a border into any other country, you are bound by laws of that country. If by the laws of those countries you are not allowed to own/carry/conceal a firearm, then no matter how you store it you will be breaking the law. The repercussions may be extremely severe - for example, in Japan up to 10 years in prison plus 1 million yen fine (about $10,000).
To answer your question about customs searches, there is no rule. In some cases you may not be search at all, in other cases they will turn the entire boat inside out - and sometimes in the same country. If you have something illegal (and a gun will likely be illegal in those countries), the chances are that it will be found and you will suffer the consequences. Therefore I strongly recommend to leave your gun at home if you are planning to travel internationally.
I will not comment of the legality of sailing into foreign ports with a gun as I am not qualified to pontificate.
I can say that if I was making an international voyage from my original state/country, Texas or Florida, then I would definitely get legal in my state and carry the docs and a very small, inexpensive armory onboard IF my destination warranted it....say like sailing through Southern parts of El Caribe.
I would like to add two points but they are opinion, mine, not supported by anything else.
1a) If I was entering a country and port that I had no good information on the legal status of firearms onboard then I would consider stashing them safely on an island along the way before entering those waters with the intent to retrieve on my exit from those waters.
1b) If I felt I need to have the weapons even entering those waters then maybe I should have chosen a better place to resupply.
1c) I would have the weapons in a weighted bag and ready to ditch as I approached an gun unfriendly country/port like Mexico for instance, accepting that the cost of being safe on my trip was the cost of ditching the weapons before entering the port or being boarded. Of course I would not throw them overboard in view of the authorities. Ditching $600 bucks in weapons and ammo is a small expense on a long trip and it sure beats spending years in prison such as Mexico.
2) I felt obligated to comment on someone's statement to staff a pump shotgun with only buckshot. I could not disagree more with this statement. Buckshot is only lethal at about 25 yards [and good luck with that], do you really want an motivated pirate to get that close before they feel your wrath? Now my solution will turn some off because the mentality of boats is you only take one of everything due to space etc. I would carry two shotguns and not mess with a handgun. One shotgun would be loaded with buckshot for close in effect and quick delivery to create hell on earth before their eyes and in their ears; I would also consider loaded the first shell with rubber shot so I get one chance to convince someone to leave before I kill someone. The other shotgun would be choked and loaded with slugs and I would have a laser sight on it so that I could get some accuracy at range. I would have my ammo in bandalero style belt so I could quickly take a position and operate my weapons until resolution of the conflict. When the pirate sees you are prepared and executing in professional manner they will take stock of that....and hopefully decide to pick on weaker prey. Whether is be truth or fantasy, there is a strong prejudice that any given American is some type of ex-military...why? because they watch the fantasy movies that come out of Hollywood and they constantly bombarded by stories of Americans going around the world killing people with their military might and 200 bases throughout the world..duh! If you don't think the world doesn't notice this stuff then you are truly self-delusional. A slug shotgun can blow a hole the size of an orange in a boat hull at 50 yards and is still lethal at 75 yards... or more. Buckshot would get a laugh at 75 yards from a criminal unless they're not packing. A slug blowing a hole in a boat at or below waterline is ten times the better solution that fighting to the death. A pirate in a boat long away from land does not want to take a hole that size in this boat because if he fails to take you he knows he is probably dead if that boat goes down.
3) I also would prefer to have a conversation with some foreign cop explaining my shotguns which cannot easily be concealed vs. a handgun which are considered guns 'to be concealed' therefore can receive similar prejudice.
I think that if you are travelling with a woman or children, simply ask politely the foreign officer "Would you sail these waters without a weapon to protect your family?" and beg for his understanding and surely don't think you have any 'right' to anything... you don't and they will not appreciate a foreigner claiming anything.
sorry for typos