BILL TO STRENGHTEN GUN LAWS IN THE TERRITORY ADVANCES

ST. CROIX- Members of the Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety chaired by Senator Steven D. Payne, Sr., held a meeting in the Fritz E. Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room and received testimony on measures that strengthen gun laws, penalties, and violations. Furthermore, the Virgin Islands Police Department (VIPD) and the Virgin Islands Bureau of Corrections (BOC) shared an update.

Lawmakers voted in the affirmative for Bill No. 34-0072- An Act amending Title 23 Virgin Islands Code, chapter 5, providing for the declaration of firearm components upon entry into the Virgin Islands and other related purposes. The measure seeks to ensure that any person entering the Virgin Islands with firearm components must immediately declare the firearm components to the Commissioner or the Commissioner’s designee at the port of entry. The declaration must include a complete description of the firearm components, along with the person’s name, address, date of birth, and occupation. “Ghost guns are legally purchased online and sold as kits. They operate and function as registered guns. The only difference is there aren’t any background checks, serial numbers, and registered owners,” said Sen. Payne. “We must get them off the streets.” In support of the measure, the Virgin Islands Chief Deputy Attorney General Eric Chancellor noted that the bill eliminates loopholes exploited by defense attorneys to remove criminals off the streets for an extended time when in violation of the law. In response to Senator Payne’s inquiry regarding how the guns enter the Territory, VIPD Police Commissioner Nominee Ray Martinez indicated that there are a lot of weapons transported via mail postal service and cargo transshipment ports.

However, the following measure was held in committee: Bill No. 34-0098- An Act amending Title 14 Virgin Islands Code, chapter 113, section 2253, relating to the unauthorized carrying of a firearm and evidence of intent to commit a crime of violence and to require that those convicted of the commission or attempted commission of a violent crime must serve the mandatory minimum sentence without suspension of sentence or adjudication and without eligibility for probation or parole before serving the mandatory minimum sentence. Senator Payne, bill sponsor shared remarks. “There is no deterrent, none for carrying an illegal firearm. The Virgin Islands ranks No. 3 per capita for murders in the world. It is not okay to carry an illegal firearm and commit an illegal act in the Virgin Islands,” said Sen. Payne. To date, VIPD continues to arrest and prosecute criminals for illegal possession of guns and related violations. Thus far in 2021, there are approximately 73 firearm arrests. This is a decline compared to 112 firearm arrests in 2020 and 130 firearm arrests in 2019. The amendment closes the loophole and ensures conviction to serve the 10-year mandatory minimum, according to Martinez.

Police Commissioner Nominee Ray Martinez shared an update on his 90 days month in office. Accomplishments are inclusive of the implementation of initiatives such as the DUI/Cellphone/Seatbelt Traffic Initiative. Regarding the Tourism Initiative, VIPD added patrol officers to the Tourist District. Due to the Intel-Driven Firearm Initiative, a total of twenty-four firearms and seventeen arrests were made for the possession of illegal firearms. Moreover, Martinez indicated that the COVID-19 Task Force, a compilation of law enforcement personnel, continues to enforce mandates for the Executive Order issued by the Governor. Furthermore, Martinez approved the installation of additional sensors on St. John and other locations to expand the Shotspotter System. Separately,

In updating the committee, BOC Director Wynnie Testamark mentioned that strict protocols and directives were established to lessen the spread of COVID-19 at the facilities. As of July 30th, BOC employees were mandated to show proof of vaccination or submit a weekly COVID-19 test. Furthermore, BOC protocols are inclusive of COVID-19 screenings, cleanings, and wearing a mask.
Although there were outbreaks at the jails, infected inmates neither died nor were hospitalized. To date, 64% of the employees of BOC are vaccinated, according to Testamark.

Senators in attendance for today’s meeting were Steven D. Payne Sr., Dwayne M. DeGraff, Novelle E. Francis Jr., Kenneth L. Gittens, Alma Francis Heyliger, Javan E. James Sr., Franklin D. Johnson, and Genevieve R. Whitaker.