After being held in committee on the last go-round, a bill banning the unlawful possession of semi-automatic and automatic weapons unanimously passed through the Rules and Judiciary Committee Tuesday and was sent onto the full legislative body for a final vote.
Several questions and objections raised by residents and community groups kept the bill from moving forward, but over the past two weeks many additional details have been re-worked, bill sponsor Sen. Sammuel Sanes said during Tuesday’s meeting.
"This is not a bill negating an individual’s right to bear arms, or to limit their right to bear arms," he added. "It is a bill that would drastically reduce some of the crimes that are infesting the territory. It’s meant to combat the epidemic that we are facing right now."
Echoing Sanes’ remarks, legislative legal counsel Augustin Ayala added that the bill doesn’t prevent an ordinary citizen from owning a firearm.
"These guns are already illegal," he explained. "So the bill doesn’t affect anyone that can legitimately own and possess a weapon." Only the police commissioner can license a firearm, and the V.I. Code gives him "substantial" authority to decide which guns are licensed and which aren’t, Ayala explained.
What the bill does, however, is add another layer to the existing gun laws by trumping up the penalties for the illegal possession of assault weapons — especially for individuals who "possess, bear, transport or carry, either openly or concealed" weapons within 100 feet of school, collect, university, playground or public housing community.
The sentences run 10 years to life in prison if convicted of a first-degree felony charge.
The bill — which finally passed as an amendment in the nature of a substitute — also clarifies the types of weapons, including "assault weapons," "automatic weapons," "semi-automatic weapons," and "conversion kits," which is described as a part or combination of parts intended to convert any firearm into an automatic weapon.
The bill received full support from committee members.
"This bill seeks to take off the streets weapons that are meant for one thing — to kill, kill, kill," said Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. "It will take them out of the hands of people are not meant to have them. There’s no place for this type of arsenal in the territory."
Moving through their agenda, senators wrapped up the meeting Tuesday with debate over a bill intended to clean up and modernize local probate laws.
While the bill was held after several senators said they hadn’t had a chance to read through the more than 300 pages, it was made clear that the existing probate code needed to be revamped.
"We have stories, horror stories, of what has happened in the Virgin Islands because of this ancient law we have now," said attorney Tom Bolt, chairman of the V.I. Uniform Law Commission. "There have been cases where 10 to 15 years after someone has passed their estates still haven’t been settled."
Many other states have enacted uniform probate laws, and this bill has been reworked by the Legislature’s chief legal counsel Yvonne Tharpes to apply to the territory and the local courts, said bill sponsor Sen. Louis P. Hill.
Senators also approved bills:
-requiring that major coastal zone permits being considered by the Legislature be ratified by the full Senate instead of just the members of the Planning and Environmental Protection Committee (the bill, sponsored by Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, narrowly passed on a four-to-three vote, with Sens. Usie R. Richards, Sanes and White voting in favor and Sens. Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Neville James and Michael Thurland voting against it);
-prohibiting employers from intimidating, harassing, threatening, demoting or firing an employee who has filed a complaint against them with the Department of Labor (employees who violate the law would be fined $1,000, while a cease and desist order prohibiting the employer from retaliating against the employee would be filed and remain in effect for six months);
– moving oversight of donated leave for personal and medical emergencies from the Finance Department to the Division of Personnel (the bill was amended Tuesday to create a donated sick leave bank — or pool of donated, accumulated sick leave and annual leave days — that members of the program who suffering from illness, injury, surgery or disability, among other things can tap into once their sick and annual leave hours are exhausted; and
-creating a standard power of attorney form under the Uniform Power of Attorney Act.
Present during Tuesday’s meeting were Sens. Craig W. Barshinger, Dowe, Hill, Neville James, Malone, Richards, Sanes, Thurland and White.