A measure introduced by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. to stem the flow of firearms and ammunition being brought into the U.S. Virgin Islands was discussed Thursday by the Senate Committee of the Whole.
Government officials explained the proposal, that would amend an existing law to require improved licensing, storage safety, and declaration processes, to lawmakers, but no action was taken Thursday.
“We continue to be challenged with the number of firearms in the territory,” Sen. Novelle Francis Jr. said during the session. “We are challenged with not only the amount of firearms but the type of firearms we are experiencing,”
During the hearing, Virgin Islands Police Commissioner Trevor Velinor said the department has worked with the Virgin Islands Port Authority to bring accountability to firearm owners by opening a firearm substation within Cyril E. King Airport. There are also plans to complete an additional substation within the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport by next week.
“The goal is to create an environment where any firearm that is brought into these locations must be declared prior to leaving the airport,” Velinor said. Currently, when an individual arrives at the airport with a registered firearm they are meant to go to the police department to declare the weapon, but Velinor said this does not always happen.
“When someone arrives in the territory, we were dependent on the trust system,” Velinor said. “We were allowing a trust system to allow the individual to leave from the airport and come to the police department. Between departing the airport and hitting our roadways there is a likeliness that many individuals did not go to the police department.”
To remedy this problem Velinor said the substations were created so individuals must declare their firearm before leaving the airport. To strengthen these efforts, Velinor said the department is also implementing a 24-hour declaration requirement for individuals traveling into the territory.
“Similar to the federal requirements of declaring a firearm with the carrier prior to boarding an aircraft, it is prudent for travelers to alert law enforcement that they are bringing firearms into our territory prior to arrival,” Velinor said. “This can be done through a declaration process.”
The development of a specific process to be followed upon entry and prior to departure from the airport should provide “improved accountability for the movement of firearms throughout the territory,” Velinor said.
The accountability for firearms has become a pressing issue for the Virgin Islands as in this calendar year alone the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency received 426 firearm complaints and in March alone there were 12 homicides.
The measure, if approved by the Legislature, also would identify specific states for “reciprocal recognition,” allowing for temporary licenses to be issued for those already licensed in another state with similar firearm handling laws.
Having the individual licensed in the Virgin Islands will “improve accountability” and “allows the department to track those firearms, thereby, increasing the security of the territory,” Velinor said.
Velinor said more than 1,300 firearm licenses have already been issued to residents in the territory.
Some senators didn’t agree that firearms should be permitted to be brought into the territory at all.
“We should move legislation to place signs at our airports and our seaports that say, ‘Don’t bring no gun here.’ Leave you guns there, this is a vacation spot. Why you coming here with gun for? You’re coming here to have a good time. I don’t want a place with no gun,” Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory said. “Don’t bring your guns here, that is what we should be telling people.”
While the option to not allow travelers to bring registered firearms into the territory garnered much appeal, Velinor said, “The overwhelming majority of firearms licensees take this responsibility serious, as reflected in the rare occurrence of their firearms being seized in crimes.”
Velinor championed robust regulation and oversight to reduce firearm crimes.
Sens. Marvin Blyden, Samuel Carrion, Novelle Francis Jr., Alma Francis-Heyliger, Donna Frett-Gregory, Javan James Sr., Franklin Johnson, Kurt Vialet, Carla Joseph, Dwayne DeGraff, Milton Potter, Genevieve Whitaker, Janelle Sarauw, and Steven Payne Sr. were present for the hearing. Sen. Kenneth Gittens was absent.