PROVIDENCE — With less than a month left in this year’s legislative session, all five of Rhode Island’s statewide office-holders made a united call Tuesday for passage of “common-sense gun safety legislation,” from a 10-round limit on ammunition clips to assault weapons and school grounds gun bans.
Gov. Dan McKee took turns at a microphone with Attorney General Peter Neronha, his lieutenant governor appointee Sabina Matos and two of his likely competitors in next year’s gubernatorial election: term-limited General Treasurer Seth Magaziner and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea.
McKee said gun violence has grown to such a huge problem he has offered to send State Police into the capital city this summer, to help Providence police deal with the persistent drumbeat of gun violence.
In his May 27 letter to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, the governor wrote: ‘In response to the recent Providence shootings, I would like to once again reiterate the State’s offer to engage the Rhode Island State Police Neighborhood Response Team to support the Providence Police Department’s efforts to keep the community safe.
“The Neighborhood Response Team is a federally-funded program that has been successfully engaged in previous years to help curb violence and protect communities. The Neighborhood Response Team’s resources would help address and prevent further violence through community-based mitigation strategies.” (It is not yet known if the city responded.)
Neronha described the sounds captured on a video of a barrage of gunfire from a semi-automatic rifle shooting through the back windshield first and then the front windshield of an SUV in Pawtucket.
“These guns are out there,” he said. “It is not hypothetical.”
More examples: “In 2019 and 2020 alone, we [in law enforcement] seized 16 high-capacity magazines, holding as many as 29 or 30 rounds… Why is that important? Why does it matter that someone not have access in one clip to that kind of firepower?”
Neronha’s answer: “Because the shooters on the streets of Providence aren’t good shooters. They don’t go to the range.”
In his time as attorney general, he also said: “Somebody bought 89 guns for 4 or 5 other people, and put those guns on the street. It is not a hypothetical.”
In his own turn speaking at the press conference outside the State House, Magaziner said it is an open secret — and “an unwritten rule” — that no gun bill wins approval in the Rhode Island legislature without “a seal of approval” from the gun-manufacturers’ lobby.
“That has to end,” he said. “We cannot wait for the seal of approval of the very same industry that profits off of pain and paranoia before we take action to protect Rhode Islanders.”
Among those watching in the background was Brenda Jacob, lobbyist for the Rhode Island Rifle and Revolver Association, who told reporters: “Right now the gun-owners feel like we’re being proven guilty for crimes we don’t have any intentions of committing.“
At this point, it appears the bills with the best chance of passage this year are those that ban straw purchases of guns, prohibiguns on school grounds, and require the locked storage of firearms when they are not in use, a requirement recommended by a Rhode Island gun-safety task force in 2018.
Under current Rhode Island law, a gun owner is criminally liable only if a child gets access to and discharges a gun, causing injury. By comparison, Massachusetts requires that all guns must be stored in a locked container or equipped with a locking device whenever not in use.
But this year’s gun-control drive includes the annual push to ban “military-style assault weapons,” feeding devices capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition and the concealed carry of firearms on school grounds.
The proposed limit on high-capacity magazines is co-sponsored by more than half the House.
Other closely watched bills include those sponsored for the attorney general by Rep. Jason Knight, D-Barrington, in the House, and by Sen. Josh Miller, D-Cranston, in the Senate to stem the flow of illegal guns into the streets “by identifying … [those] making bulk purchases tied to subsequent illegal sales and purchasing guns for people they know or should know are prohibited from possessing them.”
The proposals are not new, but the defeat in November of Rhode Island’s former House Speaker, Nicholas Mattiello, who had an A rating from the NRA, has fueled the hopes and fears of people on opposite sides of the gun-control debate.
The debate went like this at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in March:
“How would these bills have prevented a Newtown?” asked Rep. David Place, R-Burrillville, referring to the massacre by a lone shooter that killed 20 children and six teachers on Dec. 14, 2012.
Rep. Justine Caldwell, D-East Greenwich, replied: “The point of these bills is that there will be less of these weapons in circulation. … People will have less access to those guns. That is not rocket science. That is math.”
“If I had to center this debate on any one policy objective,” added Rep. Jose Batista, D-Providence, “it is to mitigate the harm.”
“I am not a gun owner. I don’t want to see guns in schools. I don’t think they belong in schools,” said Rep. Julie Casimiro, D-North Kingstown. But “I don’t see how this bill would stop a school shooting.”
Anyone who would do that “is not worried about breaking a law,” she said.
“Forty-five other states have this law. Texas even has this law,” said Knight, citing a July 2013 incident at Rhode Island College as an example of the potential risks. In that case, a janitor brought his .22-caliber semiautomatic pistol to work and lost it.
“Whether they will be voted on, and whether they will become law, is fully in the hands of House and Senate leadership,” Caldwell said Tuesday.
“Our new House leadership pledged to end the practices of the past, where the will of the majority could be subverted by one well-placed member, or one well-placed lobbyist, like the ones from the NRA,” she said.
House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio issued this non-committal joint statement: “We are reviewing several significant gun-related bills that are still under consideration this session.”