Home News Local news VI GETS TOUGH ON ILLEGAL GUNS

VI GETS TOUGH ON ILLEGAL GUNS

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July 10, 2001 – USVI Project Exile, a tough new program to combat gun crimes in the territory, was launched Tuesday morning by local and federal officials. It will send anyone convicted of a crime using a gun to an off-island prison.
Attorney General Iver Stridiron said, "This is a most important initiative in our war against crime in the Virgin Islands. Gun crime is one of the most daunting problems throughout our country, and some states have taken the lead in innovative programs to combat this scourge. We in the V.I. are also plagued with a high incidence of these crimes."
Because of that, Stridiron said, "We have brought together a number of agencies, both local and federal, to help us combat this matter. This is not so much an innovative program as an initiative to stem the tide of gun violence in the V.I."
Joining Stridiron was a bevy of local and federal law enforcement officials along with members of the Senate and the private sector.
U. S. Attorney David Atkinson reinforced Stridiron's remarks. "This is a joint venture of law enforcement officers to announce in a single voice the kickoff of V.I. Project Exile and the formation of the V.I. Firearms Trafficking Task Force."
Atkinson said the exile program is patterned after a highly successful program in Richmond, Va., that has reduced gun violence by 40 percent since 1997. He said it is "similar to the task force we are forming here today by signing a memorandum of understanding." Atkinson said Richmond's significant decrease in crime was due to a public education campaign getting across the message: "If you commit a crime using a gun, you'll do time, hard time."
Orlando Blanco, resident agent for the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, echoed Atkinson: "If you are caught doing a crime with a gun in the V.I., you're going to do hard time, and if you are caught with an illegal firearm you will do time and be exiled from your community. You will not be here to commit more crimes."
The task force will comprise seven agencies. It will include one full-time attorney each from the offices of the U.S. attorney and the V.I. attorney general who will be equal partners, sometimes cross-designated in duties. Rounding out the task force will be one full-time FBI agent, two Safe Street Task Force officers from the V.I. Police Department, two other VIPD officers, and two officers from the local ATF office. The U.S. Marshal's office will responsible for moving prisoners going to the mainland.
However, people who have unregistered weapons will be given a chance to give them up through an amnesty program announced by Bruce Hamlin, assistant Police commissioner, standing in for Commissioner Franz Christian. Hamlin said the weapons may be turned in to any police station, and a receipt will be issued. The territory-wide program commenced Tuesday and runs through July 31. A limited cash incentive is being offered on certain firearms.
Unlicenced firearms are considered illegal as are guns whose serial numbers have been obliterated, machine guns or automatic weapons.
Fitzroy Williams, chief of the V.I. Housing Police, issued a special plea to youths in all the housing projects. He said their guns could be turned in to the Housing Police office.
Stridiron stressed the seriousness of the program. "This is not a band-aid approach, something we are going to start and get lots of publicity and then we all go away. We intend to be tough as nails on persons who commit gun crimes." To illustrate his point, Stridiron said the first prisoner in the new program is being shipped out of the territory Wednesday.
Stridiron noted that the St. Thomas jail is viewed by some as a "vacation, with a waterfront view three squares a day, work-release programs and girlfriend visits." The exile program will bring true punishment in prisons in the states, he said.
The V.I. Justice Department will fund the program from funds realized from housing federal immigration detainees at the soon-to-be-completed extension to the prison annex in the Sub Base, Stridiron said. He said last year St. Croix received about $500,000 in federal funds from housing the prisoners, and he anticipates the St. Thomas annex housing facilities will bring in about $1 million annually.
In response to a reporter's inquiry about the National Rifle Association's opposition to gun amnesty programs, Stridiron said, "Speaking for Gov. Charles W. Turnbull and myself, we couldn't care less." Stridiron said the NRA's position on amnesty or exile programs is of no interest to the local government.
Sen. Carlton Dowe, who, along with Sens. Emmett Hansen II and Donald "Ducks" Cole has been working with the law enforcement agencies to develop the project, said he is proposing a $100,000 appropriation in the Senate this week to fund the Exile Program.
Hansen, with the support of 12 of his colleagues, has drafted legislation for tougher gun laws and penalties. It is on the agenda at a meeting of the Committee on Government Operations, Planning and Environmental Protection at 10 a.m. Thursday on St. Thomas.
Barry Broome, chairperson of the St. Thomas –St. John Chamber of Commerce crime committee, which has been pushing for two years for implementation of a program to reduce illegal handguns in the territory, said "the chamber's role will be to execute an effective advetising campaign to publicize the program and educate the community on the severe penalties" associated with possession of illegal weapons.
Chamber president John de Jongh Jr. said, "Though law officers have said this program isn't unique, it is special for us. It is the first time we have seen in a meaningful way that the government has included the private sector as an equal partner with the law enforcement agencies in this initiative. I compliment them."
De Jongh also praised Dowe for getting "all the players to sit together and commit to this important initiative."
For a full description of Virginia's Exile program, see www.virginiaexile.com.

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