The US Supreme Court’s impending review of a Second Amendment case triggers new attention to the CNMI’s SAFE Act
By Bryan Manabat
Saipan— On. Nov. 19, 2009, the world was shocked by a mass shooting that resulted in the death of five tourists, including two children and the gunman himself, inside a shooting range in Kannat Tabla. Six others were injured in the most violent tragedy that ever occurred on this otherwise idyllic island.
While Saipan is generally a peaceful community, it is not exactly immune to gun violence. According to its annual report, the Attorney General’s Office handled a total of 16 firearm-related criminal cases from 2015 to 2022.
A U.S. territory with a population of 49,481, the Northern Marianas is not immune either to the national debate on gun control.
The U.S. Supreme Court is set to review a major case that would again weigh the constitutionality of a 1994 federal law that keeps guns away from people under domestic violence-related restraining orders. In July, the justices agreed to hear President Joe Biden's appeal of an appellate court's ruling in the U.S. v. Rahimi case, which found that gun restrictions breached the Second Amendment's "right to keep and bear arms.”
The court’s impending deliberation on the Rahimi case has triggered a new discussion about the Northern Mariana Islands’ own gun control law, the Second Special Act for Firearms Enforcement, or SAFE Act II, which was enacted in December 2016.
SAFE Act II updated the CNMI’s old firearms law following a 2016 ruling by Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona, which struck down certain restrictions on gun ownership in the Commonwealth.
Paul Murphy, a former Army ranger, said current court rulings leave the CNMI’s SAFE Act “incredibly liable to litigation.”
While Murphy is advocating for the repeal of the SAFE Act, Attorney General Edward Manibusan is fighting to keep it intact.
On Aug. 24, Manibusan joined a coalition of 25 attorneys general in filing an amicus brief in support of Biden’s appeal. “Protection of human life and public safety should always be of utmost importance. The accessibility of firearms causes a potential rise of domestic violence involving weapons,” Manibusan said.
“Our office remains dedicated to proactively advocating and aiding victims of domestic violence and will continue to monitor and strictly enforce our gun laws for the safety and protection of the community,” Manibusan said.
Earlier, Murphy, who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, sent a letter to the CNMI Senate and the House of Representatives requesting to bar the implementation of Public Law 19-42, the SAFE Act. "We have already met with the House once in an official hearing and then again with two other representatives for some clarification and planning. We requested that they work with us to repeal the parts of the SAFE Act," he told the Pacific Island Times.
Murphy said there were over a hundred signatories supporting the letter, which was also sent to the Department of Public Safety and the CNMI Attorney General's Office. "We are all individuals coming together to do what's right.”
The letter said the CNMI citizens are being treated like second-class citizens when it comes to the Second Amendment and the right to keep and bear arms. "The CNMI SAFE Act presents the types of arguments used by the post-U.S. Civil War southern states to justify denying former slaves who were made citizens their right to keep and bear arms," it added.
Murphy noted that the requirement for registration of firearms was found unconstitutional in a case he filed against the CNMI government in 2014.
"The licensing scheme presumes guilt, and the citizen must prove himself innocent before exercising their right to keep and bear arms. These schemes limit law-abiding citizens, especially the poverty-stricken and underprivileged,” Murphy said.
"We would like you to stop the enforcement of the unconstitutional licensing scheme. We are willing to assist in creating public safety procedures that will pass constitutional muster and promote civil liberty,” he told the lawmakers in the letter.
Murphy sued the CNMI government, the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Finance in 2014 to stop the implementation of the Commonwealth’s Weapons Control Act and the SAFE Act. He challenged the law's requirement for licensing and registration of weapons, the restrictions on weapons storage at home, the ban on large capacity magazines, the ban on rifles in calibers above .223, and “assault weapons” the prohibition on transporting firearms, and the $1,000 excise tax imposed on handguns.
In 2016, Manglona ruled in Murphy’s favor, saying that some provisions of the Commonwealth Code "unconstitutionally violate the individual right to armed self-defense, in violation of the 2nd and 14th Amendments.” The ruling held that the provisions in the law questioned in the lawsuit were "unconstitutional."
Meanwhile, Manglona noted that besides the federal law, nearly every state in the U.S. has enacted a law limiting access to firearms for those subject to domestic violence restraining orders.
In the amicus brief, the coalition of attorneys general argued that the appeal court's ruling puts at risk domestic violence victims who may be harmed or killed by their abusers. In addition, the ruling hamstrings both the federal government and states in their efforts to protect their residents’ safety.
Besides the local gun control challenge, the CNMI is also facing threats from external elements that attempt to sneak illegal firearms into the territory.
In February, federal authorities teamed up with their local counterparts to launch a crackdown on gun smuggling, drug trafficking and other criminal activities perpetrated by transnational syndicates in the borders of Guam and the CNMI. “The CNMI and Guam are geographically isolated in the Pacific Ocean and nearly all available goods arrive by sea and air,” Homeland Security Investigations said in a Feb. 13 press release.
“Based on the Mariana Islands’ proximity to Asia, both the CNMI and Guam are used by transnational criminal organizations as transit points for illegal activities,” HSI said, announcing new border initiatives in partnership with the CNMI and Guam to beef up border security. (With additional reports from Mar-Vic Cagurangan)