The Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee was divided Thursday on whether to move forward a bill that originally called for a $700,000 appropriation was estimated to cost $1.5 million but reduced by amendment at the last minute to $200,000 to establish the Virgin Islands Office of Gun Violence Prevention under the Office of the Governor, or to table the discussion altogether.
After two failed motions, the bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Myron Jackson, was held in committee because half the members and some testifiers said it was redundant.
In strong opposition to the bill, Sen. Kenneth Gittens said, “We definitely don’t need it and I remain staunchly opposed to this measure.” Sens. Javan James and Janelle Sarauw too did not see the purpose of establishing the office when other agencies already exist to deter gun violence.
“We don’t need another duplication of rules and costs,” Gittens said and labeled the measure as a piece of “feel-good legislation.” The Virgin Islands Law Enforcement Planning Commission already falls under the Office of the Governor, he added, and it is only for budgetary purposes that they fall under another government entity. “If we truly wanted to set this up, all the governor has to do is create a policy and give a directive to the LEPC director as to how to proceed.”
It wasn’t just half the committee, but also testifier Shaun Pennington who said the legislation adds another layer of bureaucracy to an already complex issue that has continued to get worse despite all prior strategies.
“We have kept the statistics. We have gone to the homicide scenes, we have comforted the families, we have begged for help, we have developed strategies, we have gone on the radio, we have held the town meetings, we have marched in the communities, we have connected with the service agencies, we have made donations, we have confronted corruption, we have informed ourselves and even informed police. We have been to trainings, prayer vigils, workshops, retreats, and healing circles. We have done it all without another layer of bureaucracy. But it didn’t work. Not because those efforts aren’t valid, but because we were missing the key components – cooperation and communication,” Pennington said.
But Jackson disagreed, and said, “This is not a feel-good bill.” He said he is passionate about the bill because he had a personal tragedy take place in February 1982 when his father was shot and killed.
Jackson said the question that remains even long after his father’s death is, “How do we save lives in this territory from gun violence?”
Attorney General Denise George said, “Unfortunately, there are no simple answers to explain this rash of violence, and more than token solutions will be needed if we are to combat this crisis in a meaningful and constructive way.”
While escalating gun violence is a clear problem, the solutions, of which many have been tried, seem to be more elusive.
Pennington submitted several documents to legislators showing the ineffectiveness of the various projects and initiatives aimed at reducing gun violence in the territory. She said nothing has changed after Project Safe Neighborhoods was established in 2007, or the establishment of the Citizens Advisory Committee, or the Practice Peace Initiative that was started in 2014 with a goal of reducing gun crimes by 50 percent in 10 years, or the 2015 National Network for Safe Communities initiative.
Even testifiers in favor of the bill like Wendy Coram-Vialet, director for the Center for the Study of Spirituality and Professionalism at the University of the Virgin Islands, said whole new approaches need to be thought of in order to effectively tackle the problem.
“Over the years, as we became aware of the challenges underlying the existence of gun violence, we saw the need for a more holistic and comprehensive approach. We understood that in order to reduce gun violence in our territory it will require a shift in current strategies and innovative approaches that extend beyond traditional law enforcement to shift social norms and activate Virgin Islands residents to help prevent shootings,” Coram-Vialet said.
Lacking the majority needed for the bill to move forward, the measure rests in the Rules and Judiciary Committee until further notice.
Separately, the committee approved four bills that will be forwarded to the Committee of the Whole.
– Bill No. 33-0054, which aims to increase the participation of minority and women-owned businesses in government contracting.
– Bill No. 33-0106, which was first discussed late last year and if ratified would restrict various uses of drones.
– Bill No. 33-0250, which would require a front-end engineering design be completed for all capital projects before contracting construction services.
– Bill No. 33-0217 would, if ratified, call for the construction of a public restroom in Charlotte Amalie by refurbishing the building at No. 1 Norre Gade.