New Firearm Control Law Signed By CNMI Governor

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

$1,000 excise tax provision could be challenged in court

By Dennis B. Chan

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, April 12, 2016) – The Special Act for Firearm Enforcement, or SAFE Act, has been inked into law after Gov. Ralph DLG Torres signed the bill yesterday morning, to regulate the possession of firearms in the Commonwealth.

Some two weeks after the U.S. District Court for the NMI struck down the CNMI 40-year old ban on handguns, Torres signed the landmark legislation that, among others, bans assault weapons, requires trigger locks on firearms, addresses expected increase in firearm violence by establishing new crimes, and creates gun free zones around public and private places.

[PIR editor’s note: On April 12, 2016 Marianas Variety reported that ‘Governor Ralph Torres signed into law a gun-control measure on Monday that imposes a $1,000 excise tax on handguns — a provision that could be challenged in court.’]

Senate Bill 19-94 and its amendment is now Public Law 19-94. Torres signed the bill before a crowd of Cabinet members, law enforcement officials, lawmakers, and CNMI Attorney General Edward Manibusan, whose office had drafted and pushed the bill through both houses of the Legislature in the wake of the court ruling.

During the signing event, Torres acknowledged that with handguns allowed in the CNMI, law enforcement would have to approach cars differently, and that "first priority" would be to get them bullet proof vests, which means "not just extra funds but also extra care for our law enforcement out there."

Torres wants regulations to be "as strict as possible" and does not mind if the CNMI’s regulations were the strictest regulations around.

"I don’t think there is anyone in this office," Torres also said, who wants to "see handguns in the streets."

Manibusan, for his part, spoke to the "orientation" that law enforcement would need with the new law, which he called a "tool," in place, and said he would be meeting with them in the coming days.

He described the bill as one with "strong language that ensures the safety of gun owners and citizens." He also thanked law enforcement, and all those who supported the bill.

"This is a day where we should be happy that gun control should be put in place," said Manibusan. "But it’s not really a happy day. This is not something we want in the Commonwealth, the proliferation of handguns."

"There is a still a long wait to go," he said, to provide strict guidelines and regulations to enforce the law.

Rep. Angel Demapan (R-Saipan), among the body of House lawmakers who added a slew of amendments to expand "gun free" zones to daycare centers and clinics, said these new zones for children were drafted to get a "degree of contentment for families."

Demapan said yesterday it was very important to have protections in place as the law enforcement "duties and jurisdiction landscape drastically change."

"We are trying not to make it difficult for people, we are trying to make it safe," he said.

On Friday, Manibusan wrote to Torres to declare the proposed SAFE Act legally sufficient

He noted, though, one concern, which could suggest future challenges to the gun law, as the scope and rights of the Second Amendment are being debated in higher courts.

Manibusan was speaking to a House of Representatives amendment to impose a $1,000 excise tax on pistols.

He said although taxing jurisdictions are given broad discretionary authority to impose taxes to protect general welfare, he was concerned that the $1,000 tax per pistol may be "too excessive and unreasonably infringes on an individual’s fundamental right protected by the Second Amendment." He added, though, that this office was "prepared to defend" this provision of the bill.

"There are several cases involving gun control and the scope of the Second Amendment that are before the federal courts including a case in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dealing with controls on the carrying of firearms in public places," Manibusan said, in his two-page letter Friday. "Indeed, that same issue remains pending in the district court in Murphy v. Deleon Guerrero," he added, referring to another case challenging the CNMI’s gun law.

"My office will continue to monitor the case law as these issues move through the federal courts and make recommend changes to Commonwealth law as deemed necessary," he added.

The SAFE Act fills the void in regulations that were left in the wake of U.S. District Court for the NMI Chief Judge Ramona Manglona’s widely unpopular ruling to side with David J. Radich and his wife Li-Rong, who had challenged the constitutionality of the CNMI Weapons Control Act that prohibited all residents from obtaining handguns for self-defense purposes.

Many in the NMI believe, though, that the CNMI had complied with the Second Amendment with its permit of guns like .410 shotguns and .22 caliber rifles.

However, Manglona, in ruling in favor of the Radich couple, cited the Supreme Court’s earlier application of the Second Amendment that struck down the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns.

Notably, though, the AG office has cited the same ruling—the District of Columbia v. Heller Case—to emphasize that rights under the Second Amendment are "not unlimited," and drafted the SAFE Act with this in mind.

The AG has said that SAFE Act is a "first in a series of bills" to be offered by his office in the wake of the federal court ruling.

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