Senate committee tables bill requiring applicants to get psychological evaluation before obtaining firearm license


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ST. THOMAS - Legislation that would require all firearm license applicants to undergo a psychological evaluation is not moving forward in the V.I. Senate as of yet.

The bill, which was at the center of discussion for the Senate Committee on Homeland Security Justice and Public Safety on Monday, was tabled until the committee's next meeting.

"It's very vague. Psychological evaluation, it varies. You can go to one psychologist, and get one response, and go to another psychologist and get another," said Sen. Sammuel Sanes, committee vice chairman.

The bill, No. 30-0103, would require all firearm license applicants to pass a psychological evaluation, which the applicant would have to pay for, according to current language in the bill.

The specifics of what the evaluation would entail, and what specific determinations it would be making, are nebulous in the bill, which was sponsored by committee chairman Sen. Kenneth Gittens.

A typical evaluation costs between $800 and $1,200, according to Sen. Terrence Nelson, who is not on the committee but got into a bantering session with V.I. Attorney General Vincent Frazer during the meeting. The tense exchange was unrelated to the bills, both Frazer and Nelson said.

"I think that bill is only making it more complicated for law-abiding citizens," Nelson said. "Criminals do not abide by the law anyway."

Several attorneys, including one that owns a shooting range, also opposed the bill, noting that it likely would not solve the kind of gun violence that plagues the territory.

"Most unlawful shootings in the Virgin Islands are committed with illegally obtained firearms. And I am not aware of any recent shootings in the V.I. where the shooter was alleged to have a mental illness," said attorney Kerstin McConnell, who said that she herself has been through the process to obtain a legal firearm.

Samuel Joseph, the chief territorial public defender, also opposed the proposed bill, stating that it would be unconstitutional, and would violated the equal protection clause.

"It is completely subjective, with no standard assessment tools," Joseph said. "It also does not follow any specific guidelines to determine fitness for a firearm license. Additionally, this proposed statute is also problematic in that, an individual who does not get a favorable evaluation can shop around until he/she receives a favorable evaluation."

Psychologists who supported the measure said that they could help with crafting an evaluation that would be appropriate for a firearm license applicant, one that might mirror the evaluations that police and other security officers have to take.

"I would recommend that if the amendment of 'clinical interview' rather than psychological evaluation is accepted, that this interview be completed only by a licensed psychologist and that strict guidelines and standard measures for this type of interview be required," said Ramona Moss, chairperson of the Psychology Board since 2009.

Moss added that she felt, given the number of mass shootings recently in the states, she felt that the bill was progressive and preventative.

Frazer, who spoke Monday on behalf of the Attorney General's Office, said Tuesday that his office also supported the bill, though it encouraged some "tightening" of the bill.

"If we prevent one massacre from happening, then it's good," Frazer said. "This is one layer. This is one thing we're doing. This is not a cure-all."

V.I. Police Commissioner Rodney Querrard Sr. stood by the support of the attorney general, stating that "the non-regulation of the gun industry has allowed mentally unstable citizens easy access to firearms."

The legislation, Querrard said, might be able to prevent mass shootings from occurring in the territory.

Less conversation was had about the other aspect of the bill, which would require those who own firearms in the territory to store them in a space that meets strict requirements.

The committee also tabled Sanes's other bill which addressed the definition of assault rifles in the V.I. Code. Currently, the code addresses "machine guns," Sanes said.

The code could be more complete if it instead addressed assault rifles, which is a more general category of firearms that includes machine guns, he said.

The committee backed an amendment to the V.I. Code's regulations on synthetic marijuana. The bill would ensure that, even if changes are made to the standard formula for synthetic marijuana, also known as "spice," it still is illegal.

The bill, sponsored by Sanes, will move forward to the Committee on the Whole for a final vote.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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