Fact Check

Did the Governor of the United States' Virgin Islands Sign an Order Allowing the Seizure of Weapons During Hurricane Irma?

Despite denials, Governor Kenneth Mapp's executive order does authorize the National Guard to seize firearms and other property — if he deems it necessary to keep public order.

Published Sept. 7, 2017

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In September 2017, U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp signed an executive order empowering the National Guard to seize weapons and other private property.

On 5 September 2017, reports appeared that Kenneth Mapp, governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, had authorized the national guard in the territory to seize weapons and ammunition as part of an effort to maintain public order during and after Hurricane Irma:

U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp signed an emergency order allowing the seizure of private guns, ammunition, explosives and property the National Guard may need to respond to Hurricane Irma.

Mapp signed the order Monday in preparation for Hurricane Irma. The order allows the Adjutant General of the Virgin Islands to seize private property they believe necessary to protect the islands, subject to approval by the territory’s Justice Department.

The Daily Caller obtained what appears to be an authentic copy of the order, which sets the National Guard on active duty in the territory and orders them to keep public order and public safety "in the face of imminent danger or potential disaster from Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irma." It also authorizes and direct Brigadier General Deborah Howell, the U.S. Virgin Islands Adjutant General, to seize weapons, ammunition and other property that may be needed for the National Guard's emergency mission during Irma.

The Adjutant General is authorized and directed to seize arms, ammunition, explosives, incendiary material and any other property that may be required by the military forces for the performance of this emergency mission, in accordance with the Rules of Force promulgated by the Virgin Islands National Guard and approved by the Virgin Islands Department of Justice.

The order was signed on 4 September 2017, and went into effect the next day.  

Despite the fairly clear-cut language used in the executive order, Governor Kenneth Mapp firmly denied that he had authorized the seizure of firearms or other property from citizens in an interview with Tucker Carlson on Fox News on 6 September 2017:

I did not order or authorize the Adjutant General of the Virgin Islands National Guard to seize any weapons from any citizens, and I do not have the power — by Virgin Islands law or by the Constitution of the United States — to seize weapons from citizens via the military.

Mapp then said the order does empower the Adjutant General "to seize arms, ammunition, explosives, incendiary material", but claimed this meant the National Guard could purchase such items from a store, if they lacked the firearms they needed to keep public order:

[The Adjutant General] has the authorization to spend government resources and acquire. We don't seize property without due compensation to the property owner, after the appropriate assessment.

In the interview with Tucker Carlson, Mapp attempted to draw a distinction between "seizing weapons and other property that may be required by military forces", and "seizing weapons and other property from citizens", which he said was not mentioned in the executive order.

It is true that the order doesn't contain the word "citizens" or "civilians" but it is unclear how the order could be interpreted as not being applicable to property owned by civilians, unless he intended the National Guard to be authorized to seize only property owned by incorporated companies or trusts. No such stipulations or distinctions are made in the executive order.

Mapp told Carlson the order did not allow the Adjutant General to "go into people's homes" and acquire property, but to acquire property "as the government acquires property on the open market": in other words, to buy it. He added that the executive order empowered the Adjutant General to purchase weapons and ammunition from retail outlets without having to "go through the procurement processes of the government."

Again, this is not set out in the order itself. There is also a certain redefinition of language at work here, given that the Governor is claiming that the meaning of "to seize" in the order is "to purchase without going through the procurement processes of the government."

It is possible that Kenneth Mapp intended the order to authorize the National Guard only to purchase private property, but it is therefore entirely unclear why the order would empower the Adjutant General to "seize" weapons and ammunition, rather than to "purchase" them. It's also possible that, upon reflection, it is now his considered position that the National Guard should be authorized only to purchase property, rather than seize it.

Either way, the language in Kenneth Mapp's executive order is clear — it empowers the Adjutant General of the U.S. Virgin Islands National Guard to "seize" firearms, ammunition and other private property. It can reasonably be assumed that such confiscation would extend to the property of civilians, especially since there is nothing in the order to contradict this natural assumption, or to stipulate that only property owned by incorporated entities or trusts may be seized.

Dan Mac Guill is a former writer for Snopes.