Ocean State: RI can take the lead on gun control

by John Perilli

There is no reason why the Sandy Hook shooting could not have happened in Rhode Island. Obviously, such a massacre is terrible wherever it happens, but it should put us on our guard as a state when a tragedy like this strikes so close to home. New England is not notorious for gun violence, and yet 27 people were killed in Connecticut, mostly children, and the entire community of Newtown lies in tatters. As neighbors, we have the responsibility to act. While the national debate over gun control rages, Rhode Island must take the chance to become a leader in preventing gun crime.

It is frightening to consider that Rhode Island’s gun control laws are looser than Connecticut’s. In Connecticut, all handgun owners are required to hold a license, and all assault weapons must be registered with the state. Neither of these is required in Rhode Island. Gun control laws are easy to attack as ineffective and doing more harm than good, but a study last year by economist Richard Florida found a correlation between tighter gun laws and fewer shooting deaths. Following the recent Democratic victories in the General Assembly, progressives at the State House have the support necessary to bring a serious gun control bill to the floor. This must find its way towards the top of the legislative docket in 2013.

There is work to be done at the federal level as well. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has already committed to restoring the federal ban on assault weapons, which expired under President Bush in 2004. While shootings are thankfully so sporadic that it is hard to measure too many trends, the number of mass shootings per year has doubled since the law reached its sunset year. The ban was not perfect, though: Loopholes must be ironed out and restrictions more clearly defined.

The issue will at least come to a vote in the Senate, but the situation in the House is far less certain. Democratic Reps. Jim Langevin and David Cicilline will have to do some lobbying. A good lawmaker to start on is Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), who serves with Cicilline on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and received a score of 58 percent from the National Rifle Association this year. Another target is Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), also on the Foreign Affairs Committee, who scores an even 50 percent on the NRA scale. Most of the NRA ratings are on the extremes, but there are some important voices in the middle that could be galvanized into supporting a gun control bill.

This is not to imply, though, that gun bans are the only solution. Some states can keep violence down without them. For example, Vermont, a state with almost no gun control laws, has one of the lowest rates of gun crime in the nation. There is certainly merit to the idea that the United States has a “culture of violence” unique to the developed world, variable from state to state, but the problem is difficult to address directly.

America has something resembling a prisoner’s dilemma with weapons. One of the most common justifications for gun access is for self-defense against break-ins and crime. But what is this potential criminal carrying that necessitates this? Obviously, another gun. This creates two optimal situations for crime-wary Americans: Either they defend themselves against guns by carrying more dangerous guns, or no one carries any heavy artillery except trained law enforcement officials. Reducing violence in Rhode Island and across the nation will depend on moving everyone to this second situation, whether through gun advertising limits, bullet restrictions, or buyback programs.

Another suggested solution for gun violence is expanding access to mental health care. This will not work completely, though, if it is not accompanied by an effort to erase the stigma of visiting a psychiatrist. Psychiatry and clinical psychology have long been weighed down by negative stereotypes, and people will not seek mental help if they think it means there is something wrong with them.

The Rhode Island Department of Health should launch a broad awareness campaign to reverse this stigma. If people realize that seeking mental help does not indicate weakness, narcissism, or helplessness, the social shame of going to see a doctor will ease. Lives will be saved. Of course, one campaign will not completely eliminate the bad image, but it could give everyone a small push towards seeing a psychiatrist before his or her problems worsen.

Being so close to the tragedy, Rhode Island must do everything it can to prevent a recurrence. We have a chance to act, and make ourselves a model for the nation. If the current horrific streak of shootings continues, it will only be because we didn’t try.


photo by Timothy Tsui: http://www.flickr.com/photos/timothytsuihin/5356181535/