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Op-ed: Does one more tragedy prove we need tighter gun laws in the USVI?

Governor Bryan Albert Bryan Jr. on Tuesday addressed violent crime in the territory after several murders on St. Croix this month and a recent campus incident at the University of the Virgin Islands’ St. Thomas campus. Governor Bryan mentioned in a statement on Tuesday that “we need real action” to “improve the socioeconomic standing for many of our families.”

The Governor’s carefully worded response seemed eager to tackle regulation and crime in marginalized communities. Read the Bryan administration’s full statement here.

Virgin Islanders can’t seem to agree on gun reform, a move some residents believe will prevent the deaths of countless youth in the territory. Governor-elect Albert Bryan, Lt. Governor-elect Tregenza Roach and the newly reshuffled 33rd Legislature will be tasked with tackling the issue that has plagued the territory and made national news for the past decade.

Former Governor Kenneth Mapp used caution tackling gun control in the territory after an executive order backfired on the national stage. The governor’s decision in September 2017 that authorized the National Guard to seize weapons in the territory was criticized by Republican lawmakers and received national coverage from Fox News and other outlets. Governor Mapp’s year-old executive order can be read here.

Gun violence is very different in the Virgin Islands when comparing it to the mainland U.S. The violent crimes occurring in the territory don’t represent mass shootings, but they do paint a clear picture of retaliatory violence and gang encounters.

A new 2019  administration has now been sworn in. Now is the optimal time to review and analyze the current gun laws in the territory and how they can be improved upon or changed. Some states and countries have figured out how to curb gun violence through targeted strategies.

No country is the perfect comparison for the USVI, but several countries have taken steps to regulate guns.

USVI Current Gun Laws

The U.S. Virgin Islands have a stringent and restrictive licensing process to purchase or carry a firearm. A person must be 21 to get a non-carry weapons license, along with several other requirements. Applicants must pay $75 licensing fee, submit a signed application, be fingerprinted and photographed, and be of good moral character. That process is just for a permit to purchase firearms to store in a residence or business, and not for a concealed carry permit. There are six types of licenses:

  1. Blue,  Business Protection
  2. Yellow, Home protection and handguns only
  3. Gray, farming and long guns only
  4. White, all active law enforcement
  5. Pink, current and retired law enforcement, personal protection, and special circumstances
  6. Green, target shooting, sports use and home protection

To qualify you must belong to a gun club. To acquire a concealed carry permit, or “Pink” permit, a person must meet a specific set of criteria. To apply, you must either be a government employee, valuable goods carrier, firearms manufacturer, or be a bona fide resident or business person of the islands. You must prove you have good reason to fear death or great injury to your person or property and present at least two affidavits from credible persons who attest to that need. Due to this process, in most cases concealed carry permit applications are denied for normal resident applicants unless in grave circumstances.

Hawaii’s Strict Gun Laws

Just like the Virgin Islands, Hawai’i is a tropical paradise that is owned by the United States of America. However, unlike the USVI Hawai’i in 2015 had a mere 2.6 gun deaths per 100,000 residents. Don’t be deluded, Hawai’i has various crimes like any other place in the world, but just not a much gun-related crime because Hawai’i has very strict gun laws. Hawai‘i is the only state that requires all firearms to be registered—both rifles and handguns. All police departments are required to run background checks on anyone trying to purchase a gun. The law does not limit the number of guns that may be purchased at one time, but it does require all purchasers of firearms to register for a license. Buyers with a history of mental illness, drug or domestic violence convictions, certain sexual offenders, and anyone with a restraining order are disqualified.

The scholarly research on firearm policy is complex, but most studies support one conclusion: states with more guns have more gun-related deaths and violence. It is no coincidence that Alaska, which has the highest rate of gun fatalities in the United States, also has one of the highest rates of gun ownership.

Hawaii’s experience suggests that common sense gun regulations, when they cannot easily be subverted, save lives. These laws work even in a place that struggles with other, less serious forms of crime.

Japan Puts citizens through a rigorous set of tests.

Japan, has some of the strictest gun laws in the world and because of that Japan has 10 shooting deaths per 127 million people a year. If Japanese people want to own a gun, they must attend an all-day class, pass a written test, and achieve at least 95% accuracy during a shooting-range test.

Then they must pass a mental-health evaluation at a hospital, as well as a background check in which the government digs into any criminal records or ties, and interviews friends and family members. If they fail any of these steps, they fail the evaluation.

Finally, they can buy only shotguns and air rifles — no handguns — and must retake the class and the initial exam every three years.

The UK’s multi-pronged approach

The UK passed legislation in 1997 banning private ownership of handguns in Britain and banned semi-automatic and pump-action firearms throughout the United Kingdom. This came after a mass shooting killing 35 people including 16 children.

It first started with a buyback program, a program that pays citizens to return guns and/or ammunition. This led to the government’s purchase of 162,000 guns and 700 tons of ammunition from citizens. Amnesty was of course granted to the citizens that returned their guns willingly.

The next step was considered just important as the ban itself. This includes tighter enforcement of gun laws and upholding regulations. Penalties for anyone found in possession of illegal firearms range from heavy fines to prison terms of up to 10 years.

According to the Atlantic, illegal weapons do circulate in the U.K. To obtain them, however, a would-be terrorist would need both considerable cash (a black-market Glock costs upward of 2,000 pounds) and access to an organized criminal network. A self-radicalized amateur jihadi will lack both. In only one of all the completed and attempted Islamic terrorist atrocities in the U.K. since 9/11, did the killers even carry a single gun: a 90-year-old Dutch revolver so battered that they never tried to use it.

The Path to a safer future is through litigation.

The research is clear, gun control saves lives. Lack of definitive gun control has become perverted and lead to the preventable deaths of hundreds of young Virgin Island lives. It is now time to place the rights of you and other Virgin Island lives at the forefront of our politics and write laws and policies that help protect us. Enough is enough.

Featured image courtesy of the VI Consortium