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Budget, guns loom over end of session deal-making

Firearms


Something happened on the way to a potential budget deal at the Rhode Island State House.

Another mass shooting by a lone gunman. 

The gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in rural Texas on May 27. Less than two weeks earlier, 10 people were killed and three wounded in a mass shooting at a Buffalo, New York grocery store.

The two massacres — and others since — have sparked urgent calls for more gun control in Rhode Island and beyond, and ardent pushback by the state’s pro-gun activists.

What, you ask, does any of this have to do with the $13-billion — and growing — state budget that pays for road and bridges, taxpayer-financed aid to the poor, state government itself – and schools?

The answer: A lot.

A State House insider put it this way last week:

“Crazy times we live in. Normally, the fact that we have such a large budget surplus, plus all that [federal] ARPA money, would mean an easy budget passage (no one is getting cut), but the gun issue changes the equation.”

An “Urgent Legislative Alert” from the Rhode Island Firearm Owners’ League put it this way: 

“Progressives have threatened to vote the state budget down if leadership does not move every [gun control] bill for a floor vote.”

“Tell legislators they’re expected to support real school safety reforms rather than using a tragedy as cover for stripping our rights.

“Let them know you oppose: A ban on so-called assault weapons… Restrictions on magazines holding more than 10 rounds… Raising the age of all firearms purchases to 21 years of age… Mandatory storage of firearms… Banning of long arms in public.”

For the record, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi told The Journal, through a spokesman, that no one had conveyed to him a threat to hold up the budget until the gun bills move.

And more than one legislator privately told The Journal: they hope it doesn’t come to that. 

But here’s the math:

The Rhode Island Constitution requires a two-thirds vote of approval by the 75-member House and the 38-member Senate for “every bill appropriating the public money or property for local or private purposes.”

In the House:

• A bill to ban so-called assault weapons had 28 co-sponsors and a bill to ban high-capacity magazines capable of holding, and feeding, more than 10 rounds of ammunition to a semiautomatic firearm had 38 co-sponsors in 2021. (Under House rules, they did not need to be re-filed this year.)

• A bill to require the locked storage of firearms when they are not in use – that evolved out of tragedies close to home – had 39 co-sponsors.

And in the 38-member Senate the proposed ban on assault weapons has 23 sponsors, and the proposed limit on high-capacity magazines, 22 sponsors.

If every lawmaker who co-sponsored these bills stood their ground – no action on gun bills, no budget – legislative leaders would be unable to muster the two-thirds needed to pass a budget for the year that begins July 1.

This played a part in 2019 when the R.I. General Assembly passed abortion rights legislation, despite strong personal objections of the conservative Democrats who ruled both chambers. 

This political reality is not lost on State House leaders. 

But Rep. Justine Caldwell – the lead sponsor of three of the high-profile gun-control bills – does not believe it will come to that. 

“I feel confident that the Speaker is going to get to the right place because we pass bills in the House on the merits, and these bills are the right thing to do.”

She gave little credence to rumors that only one bill in the five-bill package is headed for a vote: the one to prohibit high-capacity magazines.

“All of us – the Reps, the Senators, the advocates, the attorney general – are focused on the package of five bills. There is no reason not to do all of them right now,” especially after what happened in Texas, she said.

“He went and bought his gun(s) legally just after his 18th birthday,” she said of the Texas shooter, Salvador Ramos. “He bought at least two assault weapons, at least seven high-capacity magazines…

“All of those things that he did before he went into that school — excepting obviously shooting his grandmother — are currently legal in the state of Rhode Island.”

More math: 

Nine of the 15 members of the House Judiciary Committee co-sponsored one or more of the bills in the gun-safety package.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is not – with five of its eight members A-rated by the NRA – as friendly to gun-control bills as its House counterpart, though the chairwoman,  former R.I. State Police Lt. Cynthia Coyne, is passionate on the issue.

If the vote were held today, the gun bills could potentially go down 5-to-3.

But that said, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio – who also netted an A-rating from the NRA in 2020 – joined House Speaker Shekarchi last week in promising the passage of “meaningful gun reform legislation” this year. 

His influence over the fate of a wide array of bills can go a long way.

And when the votes were counted on a bill to ban guns from school grounds last year,  Ruggerio and his two top lieutenants — Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey and Maryellen Goodwin — dropped into the Senate Judiciary Committee just long enough to swing the tide in favor of the bill.

A companion issue: money

How much more money will the legislature’s budget writers now earmark for schools to hire more guards — and place metal detectors at school entrances? Not yet clear. 

“Pro-gun” advocates have stepped up their calls locally and nationally for armed police officers in schools, more security measures in school buildings and enforcement of existing laws – as an alternative to any restrictions on gun ownership.

Just last week, there were two developments on this front:

• The McKee administration announced that up to $500,000 in emergency funds will be available to each school district from the R.I. School Building Authority to make additional security upgrades.

• A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill to mandate state funding for the placement of two “school resource officers” who, by definition, are defined as “career law enforcement officer(s)” in every R.I. school. 

This is not a new conversation.

In 2018, in the wake of a Valentine’s Day shooting by a lone gunman that killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla., then-Gov. Gina Raimondo signed legislation requiring school districts to adopt safety plans and file those plans with the Rhode Island School Safety Committee every three years.

“We realize that funding is always an issue,” the chairman of the school safety committee, state police Capt. Derek Borek, said then. 

But some things are simple, he said: “like cutting bushes away from schools. Locking your doors up at all times. Camera systems. Monitoring, training. Stuff of that nature.”

In 2019: Rhode Island lawmakers passed another new law to address concerns raised by both sides in the gun debate.

This one called for the creation of “threat assessment teams” in each school district to identify “individuals whose behavior may pose a threat to the safety of school staff or students,” and refer them for evaluation or treatment.

The stated goal: to “prevent violence before it happens… [and] connect people who are experiencing trouble with the help they need.”

Then came another new law requiring the attorney general to provide even more data than he had previously provided on the number, type and disposition of gun crimes.

And he did, earlier this year. 

“At this point, I hope there can be no question regarding the prevalence of guns and gun violence in Rhode Island,” he wrote.

His rundown included this account: “In May 2021, nine people were wounded in the City of Providence’s largest mass shooting in history.

“Investigators seized over 500 rounds of ammunition in various calibers as well as 12 pistol and rifle magazines, four of which were large-capacity magazines able to hold over 30 rounds.”

At last report, six individuals has been indicted in connection with the shooting.

Last week, The Journal surveyed the House

The single-question survey said: “Two mass shootings have rocked America in as many weeks. What can be done to end gun violence?”

Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, responded: “We can’t end gun violence, but we can do more to prevent the violence and lessen the toll.

“It makes no sense for individuals who are younger than 21 and therefore cannot legally gamble, smoke, consume alcohol or purchase cannabis in RI to be able to purchase a firearm legally. We must change that.

“No RI citizen needs a high-capacity magazine,” she continued. “And, RI should not be the supplier of high capacity magazines to residents of CT and MA. This is not commerce we want to encourage.”

“We must [also] pass a strong safe storage law,” she wrote. “Unlocked guns result in suicide, injury of innocent children and potential loss to theft to name a few risks.”

And finally: “People must register automobiles. Where is the logic opposing registration of firearms?” she asked.

Few lawmakers were this expansive. Some just listed bill numbers. Not all replied. But here is a sampling of some of the other answers:

Rep. Robert Craven, D-North Kingstown, the chairman of the House Judiciary, where the pending gun bills reside, wrote: “Gun violence, both cause and effect, must be addressed this session.”

He labeled as “necessary” the passage of bills to prohibit the sale or possession of certain high-capacity magazines; raise the age required to purchase a rifle or shotgun to 21, and require all gun owners to securely and responsibly store their guns.

“We also must also review school security to ensure safety – investigate 3M film creating one-way viewing at all schools, train school security on handling school shootings, and confine entry to all schools to one locked door.”

Rep. Carol McEntee, D-South Kingstown: “The House and Senate must act quickly and pass all proposed gun safety legislation! It’s time to show our children that their safety is more important than a person’s right to own an automatic weapon! Enough is Enough! “

Rep. Mary Messier, D-Pawtucket, wrote: “A ban on all assault rifles.”

Rep. Joseph McNamara, D-Warwick, who doubles as state Democratic Party chairman: “Pass the package of Common Sense gun control bills now pending before the RI General Assembly.”

From the other side of the gun debate, only Republican Rep. Michael Chippendale of Foster responded. 

“It’s clear that the gun-control proposals that we see every year won’t have an impact… For example, so-called “assault weapons” are banned in NY, yet the Buffalo murderer wasn’t slowed by that law.

“It’s further clear that until we take school safety seriously and harden our school buildings like we do courthouses, government buildings, airports, banks etc. while also placing armed, and trained law enforcement officers in every school building, we will continue to leave our children in harm’s way.”

“While it may be emotionally and intellectually easier to blame the firearm,” Chippendale said, “we need to accept the fact that there is a serious mental health crisis in our nation… [and] it is particularly impacting our young boys.

“The … years of COVID have only amplified that trend.”



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