Congressional Republicans Question USVI State of Emergency

Rob Bishop (R-UT), chair of the Natural Resources Committee

Two powerful Republican members of Congress are questioning the continuing state of emergency in the territory, expressing concern it might allow the V.I. National Guard to “seize lawfully owned firearms from their citizens, in violation of their constitutional rights.”

Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), the chair of the Judiciary Committee and Rob Bishop (R-UT), chair of the Natural Resources Committee, sent a letter to Gov. Kenneth Mapp, dated July 18. The two may be confusing Mapp’s Sep. 4, 2017 order mobilizing the V.I. National Guard with his Sep. 4, 2017 order declaring a state of emergency prior to the landfall of Hurricane Irma. Government House did not respond to requests for comment on the congressional letter and clarification of the terms of the state of emergency.

Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), the chair of the Judiciary Committee

The congressional letter says Mapp declared a state of emergency on Sep. 4, 2017, which is accurate. It goes on to state the “order, still in effect today, stated that, ‘the Adjutant General is authorized to seize arms, ammunition, explosives, and incendiary material in carrying out its emergency mission.'” and that this is a violation of constitutional rights.

Mapp issued an order with that language on Sep. 4, 2017. It does not contain language declaring a state of emergency nor does it cite the sections of V.I. law empowering the governor to declare a state of emergency.

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A different order issued that day does however say the governor declares a state of emergency, citing the provisions of law empowering him to do so. The header on that other document reads “ORDER BY THE GOVERNOR OF THE UNITED STATES VIRGIN ISLANDS DECLARING A STATE OF EMERGENCY IN THE UNITED STATES VIRGIN ISLANDS DUE TO HURRICANE IRMA.” This order contains no language regarding seizing of firearms.

The question of seizing of firearms was briefly a hot-button issue among some Republicans and avid gun-rights supporters last September, with outlets like, Breitbart News and the National Rifle Association expressing outrage. Mapp said at the time the language was boilerplate and intended to allow the National Guard to purchase weapons from civilians if necessary. When asked about the controversy last September, Mapp said the National Guard “is not authorized to take arms and munitions from civilians.”

News and opinion outlets with similar perspectives, such as Fox News and the Daily Caller, founded by Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, are also reporting on Goodlatte’s and Bishop’s letter this week. Fox News reported Thursday that Bishop said it’s unclear if any law-abiding citizens’ firearms have been used or confiscated by the USVI government since the order was enacted. But there have been no reports at all of any weapons being confiscated under this order.

Fox News and others cite the fact-checking website, which says it is “true” that Mapp “signed an order empowering the National Guard to seize weapons and other private property.” But Snopes does not say the order was the declaration of a state of emergency.

While Mapp’s declaration of a state of emergency does not contain language about firearms, it does grant the governor very extensive powers and Mapp has extended it nine times since the storm, with very little explanation.

Under V.I. law, the governor may, for example, “(s)uspend the provisions of any statute prescribing the procedures for conduct of territorial business, or the orders, rules, or regulations of any territorial agency” and “Take any other action he deems necessary.”

In response to a V.I. Open Records Act request for information on any government spending under that authorization, Attorney General Claude Walker said “(b)eing in a state of emergency does not dispense with following the local procurement laws,” and that the government has not entered into any contracts outside of normal procurement practices.

Government House has not responded to numerous requests for information explaining the continuing extensions of the state of emergency long after the storms have passed, power has been restored, stores have reopened and cruise ships have resumed visiting.

It is not clear the extensions meet the requirements of the law.

Under V.I. law, a state of emergency expires automatically in 30 days, unless the governor issues a proclamation extending it for another 30 days.

But the statute giving the governor power to declare a state of emergency also says “(a)ll proclamations issued under this subsection shall indicate the nature of the emergency or major disaster, the area or areas threatened, the conditions which have brought it about or which make possible termination of the state of emergency.”

The governor’s ninth renewal proclamation makes no mention of any current conditions at all, any areas threatened by any conditions, nor what would make possible the termination of the state of emergency. It references only conditions that existed nine months ago. It expires Aug. 1 unless extended again.

Asked how the extensions met the requirements of the law, Walker said Thursday “the governor is exercising his authority to issue the (executive order) based on multiple facts.” Walker did not specify what facts and referred further questions to Government House. Government House has not yet responded to requests for clarification.

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