As if the U.S. Virgin Islands weren’t having enough trouble with guns, the territory’s police have noticed an alarming new trend: the spread of fake firearms that so closely resemble actual weapons as to be almost indistinguishable.
St. Croix Deputy Police Chief Christopher Howell talked about the phony firearms Thursday morning at a press conference to discuss guns in the territory.
There are approximately 6,000 registered firearms in the U.S. Virgin Islands, most divided about equally between St. Croix and St. Thomas, Howell said. So far this year, 18 legally registered handguns have been reported stolen.
Howell and Karen Stout, the firearm supervisor for the VIPD, said legal gun owners have a responsibility to care for them properly. They should be stored in a safe that is bolted to the floor or built into the house, not under the pillow or in a nightstand, Stout said, and never loose in the car. To make sure they are stored properly, Stout said she visits homes as part of the gun registration process.
Stout and Howell described a long, thorough process that takes as long as three months to get a license to possess a gun. It includes fingerprinting and a thorough check of the applicant’s criminal history—not just in the territory but stateside as well. Stout visits the applicant’s home to make sure the person actually has an appropriate place to store the gun. If not, he won’t be getting his license.
Howell compared that to the much simpler routine in many of the states, where applicants can purchase a handgun in a matter of days – for the waiting or “cooling off” period – and with as little identification as a driver’s license.
“We do have gun problems,” Howell said, “but when you consider that, it’s not as bad as people think.”
But even with those precautions, guns get lost and stolen. And if subsequent investigation shows that the owner was negligent in storing the weapon, he or she will find it much harder to register a second weapon in the territory.
“If you’re in possession of a weapon legally, it comes with great responsibility,” Howell said. “It is an instrument of death.”
A new trend in the territory is the growing presence of fake guns, guns that even an expert would have difficulty identifying as a replica instead of the real thing. But though they may not fire a projectile, they can be extremely dangerous, the police said.
“It may not be illegal, but it’s extremely irresponsible of the individuals who make money off of these,” Howell said.
At Thursday’s press conference the police brought out seven pistols, some real and some phony. Howell held them up, worked the slides, showed where the clip of blanks is loaded, cocked them, and passed them around the room so the reporters could feel the weight of them. Then he asked whether the media members could tell which were real and which were fake.
And none could. As it turned out, only two of the seven were real. The other five were phony. They fire blanks, which sound just like a real pistol firing a bullet; and they look just like the real thing. But that doesn’t mean they are safe, Howell said.
For one thing, if a police officer is confronted by a person with a pistol, he or she won’t stop to ask if the person is armed with a Glock or a fake. They will proceed as if they’re facing an armed gunman – police have to make that assumption – and if the suspect acts aggressively or dangerously he could find himself getting drawn on by a real weapon held by an officer who knows how to use it.
Howell added that some criminals may be operating under the mistaken belief that if they use a fake gun in the commission of a robbery, for example, they can’t later be charged with armed robbery.
Not true, Howell said. If a criminal uses a gun in the commission of a crime, it doesn’t matter whether that gun might not be able to fire a bullet. The victim of the crime didn’t know that, the police following up don’t know it, and the suspect will face just as serious a set of charges as if the gun were real.
Howell said he recently took part in a traffic stop and noticed that the driver had a pistol between the seats. The incident suddenly went from routine to deadly serious as the officers reacted to the presence of a weapon. Even after Howell had the gun in his hand and looked it over, he couldn’t tell if it was fake or real.
“They are so realistic, unless they were to inspect it thoroughly most people wouldn’t know it was fake,” Howell said.
The police department is talking with members of the Senate about getting some control on the fake weapons, perhaps allowing them to still be sold, but requiring that they be painted a different color.
Howell also warned that it’s just a matter of time before some enterprising soul figures out how to make the fakes actually able to fire.
Stout also said the police department has gun locks available that they will give to owners of legally registered guns. All a gun owner has to do is call the police and ask.