The R.I. House Judiciary Committee recommended that 27 gun-related bills up for consideration be held for further study — including legislation which would ban assault-style weapons — at a hearing Monday afternoon.
The decision to hold the bills is “not substantive and does not signify any position on the merit of bills,” Committee Chair state Rep. Robert Craven (D – North Kingstown) explained before the hearing got underway. “The motion is procedural only and simply allows the committee sufficient time to review both verbal and written testimony.”
The hearing lasted over seven hours in total — keeping legislators in the committee room well past 9 p.m.
Assault weapons ban
Introduced by state Rep. Jason Knight (D – Barrington, Warren), H5300, would “ban the possession, sale and transfer of assault weapons.” That category would include three classes of semi-automatic firearms, including certain types of semi-automatic shotguns, rifles and “a very very small class of pistols,” according to Knight.
Assault weapons acquired before passage would be “grandfathered” under the law, provided that the weapon is properly registered. If the legislation — which has been introduced in the House every year since 2019 — passes, Rhode Island would become join several other states that have enacted a ban on certain types of assault-style weapons.
Knight said that the prevalence of mass shootings across the country makes the bill necessary. There have been more than 160 mass shootings so far this year in the United States, according to the New York Times.
“I do not want to be the legislator who wakes up one morning after something, God forbid, as awful happened in Rhode Island and be a part of a body that didn’t do everything it possibly could,” Knight told the committee.
The legislation aims to build upon three gun control bills passed by the general assembly last year. The three bills limited magazine capacity, raised the minimum age for purchasing rifles and shotguns from 18 to 21 and prohibited the open carry of long guns, The Herald previously reported.
“Every year, we come back up here because there’s a proliferation of gun bills trying to once again restrict our second amendment rights,” Frank Saccoccio, president of the Rhode Island 2nd Amendment Coalition — the NRA state association — told the committee. “Every year, we have to come up here and say to the legislators, ‘why don’t you go after the criminals, why don’t you leave the law-abiding citizen alone.’”
A recent study with support from the National Institute of Justice found that in over 75% of known mass shooting cases — events in which there were four or more casualties — the perpetrator “purchased at least some of their guns legally.”
Governor Dan McKee also wrote in “strong support” of the assault weapons ban in testimony submitted April 14 to the committee. Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos shares this stance, adding in a separate letter that the gun control bills are “an issue of equity” because “gun violence has a disproportionate impact on communities of color.”
The committee also heard testimony on H5434, which would require guns to be stored in locked containers when not being carried by their owners.
“With this bill, we are asking for the absolute bare minimum — that if you own a dangerous weapon, you secure it in your home,” said state Rep. Justine Caldwell (D – East Greenwich, West Greenwich), who introduced the legislation. According to Caldwell, this is the fifth year in a row that the legislation has been introduced.
House minority leader Michael Chippendale (R – Coventry, Foster, Glocester) argued that “responsible firearm owners” will be the only Rhode Islanders who will follow the law if passed and they “already take strenuous steps to ensure that accidents don’t happen.” He added that the legislation will prevent Rhode Islanders from properly protecting themselves and their homes.
Saccoccio was also among several people who raised concerns that this ban and a separately introduced safe storage bill would be unconstitutional.
In response, Knight read a letter submitted by Attorney General Peter Neronha, in which he wrote: “We are confident that this legislation is constitutional and that we’re prepared to defend any challenge that may arise.”
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With the committee room full, the R.I. State House atrium was a sea of yellow, orange and red shirts as lawmakers discussed the legislation and heard testimony.
Yellow was the color worn by gun-rights supporters, among them the R.I. Second Amendment Coalition, Rhode Island Revolver and Rifle Association and other organizations. Members of the R.I. Coalition Against Gun Violence and Moms Demand Action wore orange and red respectively. The Herald spoke to members of each group about their stances on the proposed bills.
“Hearing days bring out more color,” said Cindy Capra ’78 P’14 MAT’6, a credentialed family nurse practitioner, who was with RIAGV.
Capra went to the State House to support both the assault weapons ban and safe storage bills. She emphasized gun violence as a public health issue and said she is more optimistic than ever about the proposed legislation. “Last year was a very successful year, but this year we’ll build on that,” she said.
Sue Larson, part of the leadership team for R.I. Moms Demand Action Volunteers, also said that the safe storage bill and assault weapons ban were priority bills. She emphasized that Moms Demand Action is not against the Second Amendment, but she feels that “weapons of war have no place in our communities.”
“We just feel that we need better regulation and we need to make sure that guns don’t fall into the hands of the wrong people,” she added.
According to Brenda Jacob, secretary and lobbyist for the Rhode Island Revolver and Rifle Association, the proposed gun control bills are not about safety but rather “about control.” Jacob called the safe storage bill “a geographical issue,” explaining that she keeps a shotgun by her bed at night on her rural farm.
“I don’t think criminals are ever going to adhere to (these bills) and the only ones that they’re hurting are the hard-working, law-abiding citizens,” she said.
Rick Gregoire, who came to the State House with the Second Amendment Coalition, understood the “concern for public safety,” but said that people have misconceptions about gun ownership. He called the gun-control measures of recent years part of a pattern of “constant encroachment.”
“They say this is it and then next year it comes a little further and the next year it comes a little further,” Gregoire said. “What’s next?”
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear testimony on companion bills for the assault weapons ban, safe storage and other gun-related legislation next week.
Additional reporting by Sam Levine
Jacob Smollen is a Metro editor covering city and state politics and co-editor of the Bruno Brief. He is a sophomore from Philadelphia studying International and Public Affairs.