A proposed change to how the V.I. Police Department handles firearms licenses unholstered confusion and consternation in a legislative hearing Thursday.
Appearing at the Finance Committee budget hearing on St. Croix, Police Commissioner Ray Martinez did not object to the changes, which would make firearm licenses good for five years instead of three and would give a discount to senior citizens. Martinez said the bill didn’t go far enough to address problems with the current licensing procedures, however.
Would-be gun owners should have to undertake regular safety training, present a letter from a physician saying they are healthy enough to operate a firearm, and have the gun checked to be in good working order, he said.
“I’ve found every state — all 50 states — require some type of reassuring training and we do not. We have folks who have had firearm licenses for 20 years and have not had any sort of reassuring training. So we’re not even certain if in fact they still know how to safely handle those firearms,” Martinez said. “You need to come with a physician’s notice that you are fit for the firearm. The firearm should be in working order, and you need training.”
Martinez said the territory should also change its gun regulations to mirror those on the U.S. mainland, where a licensed gun owner can acquire firearms without having to reapply. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, gun owners need a new license for every new firearm.
“Once you meet the requirements you meet the requirements, as opposed to having to go back through and submit an entire new application just to have an additional firearm,” he said.
Fees for those new firearms weren’t always collected, Martinez said, describing it as an ad hoc decision based on who is in office.
“What has occurred over the years is some firearms supervisors have charged and some have not. We’re trying to streamline that as we speak. I am of the opinion we should not be charging you an additional application. So what I have done, since I’ve been in this seat, is just approve an individual for an additional firearm once they meet the requirements,” he said.
Martinez did suggest that the fees collected were far too low.
The Virgin Islands charges $65 for new firearms registration and $50 for license renewals. The territory should have fees closer to the mainland, he said, where the average price is closer to $125 for a new application and $95 for renewal.
Sen. Samuel Carrion corrected the commissioner, reading from the existing law that requires $75 for a new firearm application and $150 for renewal.
Martinez acknowledged he had been unaware of the law.
Sen. Javan James expressed dismay that the Police Department wasn’t following a 2020 law that requires funds collected from gun licenses to be deposited in an account for the Virgin Islands Education Initiative Fund. The money is supposed to be deposited every three months through October 2030, according to Act 8434.
“This law was passed two years ago to benefit the youth of this territory. And according to them they have over $160,000 sitting in there to help our students, to buy books and curriculum items and what have you,” James said.
Jenifer O’Neal, director of the Office of Management and Budget, testified that the Police Department plans to deposit the money as required and had not done so because the law was so new.
Martinez said repeatedly the Police Department was not keeping the funds.
In fiscal year 2020, the Police Department collected roughly $118,000 in firearm license fees, $122,630 in 2021, and predicted roughly $124,000 in 2022, he said.
“We have had a substantial increase in the number of locals, folks locally, who have been submitting for firearm licenses,” Martinez said.
There are 4,275 licensed firearms in the territory, he said, 2,235 on St. Croix and 2,034 on St. Thomas. In fiscal year 2021, the Police Department processed 767 new applications and 1,423 renewals. As of June 30 of this year, the Police Department collected $82,850 for 573 new applications and 813 renewals.
Processing the applications is itself a cumbersome activity involving combing through decades of paper records, he said. The Police Department is not allowed to destroy old firearm license information, meaning the department has paper records going back to 1963. Digitizing these records and future licenses would help a lot but would also be expensive, the commissioner said.
“The best quote we have for scanning those records in is $250,000,” he said. It would cost that same amount again to set up an automated system going forward.
The average licensed gun owner is between 38 and 48 years old. It is a felony to possess an unlicensed firearm but the penalty for a late renewal is minimal, Martinez said.
“Unfortunately, the grace period is 60 days and the penalty is $15. Anything over 60 days they have to start the application process from scratch,” Martinez said.