Assault Rifle Ban Goes Nowhere; GERS Officer Could Get Peace Officer Status

Horace Magras objected to the proposed ban on assault weapons on constitutional grounds during a meeting Tuesday of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety. (Screenshot from V.I. Legislature Facebook live stream)

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety on Tuesday tried to determine who should carry a gun and what guns residents should be allowed to carry.

During its afternoon session, one of the four bills the committee considered was whether enforcement officers at the Havensight Mall on St. Thomas should be granted peace officer status.

Angel Dawson, administrator of the Government Employees’ Retirement System, testified that giving peace officer status to at least four of the 17 GERS officers now responsible for security at the mall, which will see about a million guests and residents visit this year, enhances Havensight’s security. He said the mall, with its popular restaurants and the West Indian Company Limited dock, was not only serving cruise ship passengers but a nighttime crowd of locals.

It was the only bill voted on favorably by the committee and forwarded to the Rules and Judiciary Committee.

The bill that would ban assault rifles raised objections and was held in committee, as was a bill to increase the length of time a firearm can be licensed and one to regulate gun components being mailed.

Senate President Novelle Francis challenged testifiers Ian Clement, acting attorney general, and Sidney Elskoe, assistant police commissioner, to define what weapons were assault rifles. Their definitions did not match his. They would have included semi-automatic weapons. Francis said semi-automatic weapons could never be banned.

Residents Gregory and Horace Magras objected passionately to the proposed ban on constitutional grounds.

Horace Magras said that, according to the Supreme Court, the public benefit could not interfere with individual rights. Sen. Milton Potter disagreed, saying lawmakers needed to do what was suitable for the public. Potter said there was “no purpose for assault weapons in the Virgin Islands.” Magras said that law-abiding citizens needed to meet the threat from criminals with the same firepower the criminals had.

Sen. Kenneth Gittens, who chaired the meeting, said there was not enough data available to decide on the bill, and more work needed to be done. He said the committee could call up the bill at its next meeting. Twice, the Senate legal counsel has questioned if the Senate had the constitutional right to institute such a ban. They were told yes if the ban appeared “reasonable.”

Several senators raised concerns that the bill to extend gun licenses from three to five years would have an economic impact. Sen. Angel Bolques was concerned it would negatively affect the police department’s revenues.

However, Sen. Franklin Johnson pointed to recently increased fees for licensed firearms. He said the fees had been raised from $75 to $150 per weapon, and the government could be pricing a gun collector out of his hobby.

Sens. Bolques, Dwayne DeGraff, Alma Francis Heyliger, Novelle Francis, Kenneth Gittens, Franklin Johnson, and Milton Potter attended the meeting.