Guns on Guam

December 27, 2016 Mar-Vic Cagurangan

You would be hard-pressed to find any heated battles over gun control in Guam. Unlike the U.S. mainland where gun policy discussions usually trigger an extremely polarized public debate, here on island the Second Amendment is pretty much a non-issue; no one goes “ballistic.”

There appears to be no real ideological conflict between local Republicans and Democrats. They have typically crossed party lines on firearms measures and mostly agree.    

Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that gun violence is relatively rare on Guam, setting itself apart from the rest of the nation where mass shootings seem to have become more and more routine.

According to Armed Violence Reduction Monitor, Guam registered a zero firearm-related homicide in 2007, 2012, and 2014. There were two cases in 2013.

In January of 2016, Senator Tony Ada held a public hearing on his Bill 236-33, the gun reform legislation. Only two people showed up to testify. Police Lt. Scott Wade and private citizen Albert Silos endorsed the bill that lifts the restrictions on the issuance of gun permits on Guam and extends the right to own a gun to permanent residents. It was a brief and smooth public hearing. The bipartisan measure sailed through to become Public Law 33-134.

While guns contribute to 1.6 percent of deaths across the United States—33,169 incidents in total, including 11,208 homicides—guns contribute to the death of 0.1 percent of the population of Guam. 

Of the 26 murders committed on island since 2009, only three incidents involved firearms. In fact, the Uniform Crime Report of 2013 showed “strong-arms such as hand, fists, and feet were the weapon of choice. Offenders used strong-arm tactics in 48.97 percent of all of robberies.”

Most gun owners on Guam are either hobbyists or cautious citizens who seek to protect their homes from possible intruders, according to Michael Archibeque, vice president of the Guam Gun Owners Association (GGOA).

“Firearm ownership is a Constitutional right, a serious responsibility, and every US citizen’s choice if they wish to exercise this right. Passing on this right, heritage and responsibility to family members would also be important to many,” Archibeque says. “Legal, law-abiding owners may wish to own a firearm in order to target shoot recreationally, participate in sport shooting competitions, hunting or for self/home-protection.”

There were 16,651 registered firearms on Guam as of 2015. In 2014, the Guam Police Department issued a total of 2,266 firearm identification cards, one less than in 2013.

President Barack Obama’s efforts to ramp up gun control have triggered an increase in firearms purchases over the last three years. A total of 3,758 firearms were registered in 2015, representing a 3 percent increase from the previous year.

“There has been and continues to this day a dialogue with elected officials, local law enforcement, Attorney General's Office, and the firearm community. Social media has been another way for those interested in gun ownership to get access to Guam gun laws links, and gain details of how to get a Guam Firearms ID,” Archibeque says.

Gun control was one of the most contentious issues in the 2016 presidential race. Gun rights advocates were worried Hillary Clinton would win and launch a crackdown on firearms. They now rejoice over the election of Donald Trump, who declared himself “a Second Amendment person.” But Archibeque says “it would be too early to say” if there would be less gun control under the Trump presidency.

While Guam’s gun policy is categorized as “permissive,” it is believed to be one of the strictest in the United States. Sale or delivery of firearms is restricted in Guam like any other U.S. state. Only those licensed under the Federal Gun Control Act of 1968 are allowed to import and sell firearms.

Guam prohibits the manufacture, possession, sale, barter, trade, gift, transfer, or acquisition of any machine guns, sub-machine guns, automatic rifles, or any other firearm. However, this restriction is not applicable to a rifle having a barrel length of 16 inches or greater or a shotgun having a barrel length of 18 inches or greater or a revolver or pistol having a barrel length of more than 12 inches. Mufflers, silencers, or devices for deadening the sound of discharged firearms are also prohibited. A violation of this law corresponds to a punishment of three years in prison and a fine of not less than $1,000.

“The GGOA doesn't agree to more/further restrictions beyond what current Guam gun law states,” Archibeque says. “Background checks are already part of the Guam process to gain a firearms ID.”

At that public hearing on Bill 236-33 held last January, Lt. Wade of the Guam Police Department said firearms permit applicants run through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System “to verify any arrests of issues in any of the states.”

He said the legislation that allows a green card holder to own a gun allows better screening of applicants. “This amendment would assist our department in vetting firearms applications and differentiating between permanent resident aliens and non-eligible aliens as defined by the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1996,” he told the senators.

Ada said his bill, which Gov. Eddie Calvo signed into law shortly after it was passed by the legislature in February 2016, was consistent with the U.S. Constitution. “Many state and federal courts have struck down laws that deny permanent resident aliens Second Amendment rights,” he said at the public hearing. “As you know, permanent residency is that final step to an individual actually becoming a citizen.”

Guam has been easing gun restrictions in recent years. In 2014, the legislature converted Guam from a “may issue” to “shall issue” jurisdiction by virtue of Public Law 32-150, which states that a permit for a concealed firearm “shall be”—amended from “may be”—issued if requirements are met, making it easier for anyone to purchase a firearm.

Ada, the bill’s author, invoked the Peruta vs San Diego case in introducing the bill. In the Peruta appeal in 2014, a three-judge panel in the Ninth Circuit Court found San Diego County’s concealed carry scheme unconstitutional, holding that the Second Amendment requires that “the states permit some form of carry for self-defense outside the home.”

The 2014 ruling was appealed, and after a rehearing, it was upended by an 11-judge en banc panel in June 2016, which held that the concealed carrying of firearms may be prohibited. In a 7-4 decision, judges agreed bearing arms that are concealed is not, in itself, part of the Second Amendment right, as that right has been traditionally understood.  “Therefore, because the Second Amendment does not protect in any degree the right to carry concealed firearms in public, any prohibition or restriction a state may choose to impose on concealed carry—including a requirement of “good cause,” however defined—is necessarily allowed by the Amendment,” the court said.

Ada subsequently amended Guam’s concealed firearms law by adding a provision that mandates safety training for concealed firearms licenses. Although firearms policy on Guam is not argued with guns blazing, legislation on how the weapons can be used is a different story. For example, the Castle Doctrine Act was met with resistance when Ada introduced it in 2013.  

The Castle legislation provided immunity from prosecution to homeowners who employ fatal force against home invaders. Under this doctrine, a person “is presumed to have held a fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm,” if “the person against whom the defense force was used was in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering or had unlawfully or forcibly entered a dwelling, residence or occupied vehicle,” or “the person who uses defensive force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred.”

Despite opposition from some Democrats, the bill passed and eventually became law. However, some feared this law provides blanket license for everyone to pull the trigger.

Is Guam adequately informed about the Second Amendment? “Within the local firearms community and with many Guam firearms-owning residents being active-duty, reservist, and former military members, yes we would say the above is true,” Archibeque says. “However, we cannot speak to the local population’s education on the Second Amendment.”

Nevertheless, he said, the GGOA was formed “with hundreds of members and like-minded individuals” to educate the local firearms community and promote responsible firearm ownership and firearm handling safeguard techniques. “The GGOA is the only non-profit organization on Guam whose mission is promote and protect Second Amendment rights of all Guam law abiding residents with a focus on safety and education in service to our island firearms community,” Archibeque concludes.

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