This is the first in a series of planned articles examining the epidemic of illegal guns in the territory beyond individual crimes.
People scattered as police arrived at a disturbance-of-the-peace call in Havensight. Police said one of those caught just after midnight Saturday volunteered that he owned the illegal handgun found. Why 28-year-old La ‘Quan Eric Castro allegedly admitted to the felony is yet unclear. Gun violence experts aren’t surprised, however, by a casual admission. For some, carrying an unlicensed firearm is a status symbol and being arrested for it is glamorous.
Castro, charged with unlawful possession of a firearm, unlawful possession of ammunition, and possession of a firearm with an obliterated serial number, awaited an advice of rights hearing in jail. If convicted on all counts, he could spend years, if not decades, in prison.
This threat of punishment behind bars — an extraordinary restriction of personal liberty that terrifies many of us — has become another bragging right for a subset of illegal gun owners and a rite of passage for those enamored with a life of crime, said Antonio Emanuel, executive director of the Office of Gun Violence Prevention.
“I don’t think they see going to jail as a bad thing. They almost see it as a badge of honor, giving them higher street cred. And that’s the scary part,” Emanuel said.
The choice to face months or years in a prison cell is all the more striking given the alternatives offered by the Virgin Islands, where natural beauty and celebratory culture abound, he said.
“For some of these young folks, that’s not an issue for them because, unfortunately, a lot of them don’t think they’re going to live past 25 or 30. So, they might as well go for what they know, get all they can get in the short time that they expect to be on this earth. And that’s what breaks my heart. That’s what makes me sad. That’s what makes me concerned about our young people because we’re eliminating each other for ridiculous things,” Emanuel said.
Some of those ridiculous things include drug-selling turf battles, revenge shootings for perceived slights and romantic jealousies, and wars between rival neighborhood gangs lacking any substance beyond street addresses. Sometimes the combatants in our islands of limited geography and population are cousins living only a single street apart, he said.
There is a difference, Emanuel said, between those who choose to commit gun crimes out of pessimism and bravado and those who commit these felonies out of true desperation.
If someone is committing armed robberies to get money to feed themselves or their family, he said, job training and assistance with financial planning may be more effective than law enforcement in preventing repeat offenses.
The newly-created Office of Gun Violence Prevention held its first stakeholder meeting last month, where concerned government agencies poured over statistics to identify those who may be receptive to the office’s outreach. Based on techniques from the New York-based National Network of Safe Communities, Emanuel said his job includes looking at gun crimes holistically.
Implementation of the program is different in each city. Tailoring gun violence prevention services to the needs of the Virgin Islands will take time. This means reaching out to victims and potential victims, perpetrators, and potential perpetrators.
“The traditional approach to gun violence and gun possession is not working,” he said. “We have to look at it as a public health problem.”
Gun assaults based on revenge — be they gang-related or romantic jealousies — are another area Emanuel hopes his office can prevent violence. Police often suspect the assailant of an attack but don’t have the evidence to make an arrest. Using this information, Emanuel plans to use his office to find non-violent solutions.
“It’s going to be a long, slow process because it’s a culture change,” he said.
Himself a former police officer, Emanuel knows police don’t have the expertise nor resources to make these sorts of interventions.
Conversely, someone committed to a life of crime may not be willing to hear Emanuel’s message — much as he might offer. Collecting the street credibility of sitting in jail might suit that person fine.
“I don’t want to sound like Debbie Downer. Sometimes people do get in there and have an epiphany and say, ‘Hey, I never want to come back here,'” he said.
But too often they don’t.