Ocean State News Update: Package of gun bills proposed for Rhode Island

by John Perilli

During a packed press conference last week at the Rhode Island State House, a package of nine gun safety laws was proposed for passage by the General Assembly. Drafted in response to December’s school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the bills are designed to tackle a wide variety of firearms issues, including criminal penalties for illegal possession, background checks, and mental health concerns.

“The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School sounded a wake-up call for all of us,” said Speaker of the House Gordon Fox (D-Providence) at the press conference. “For the last several months, we have been reviewing our firearms laws and our mental health procedures. The package will give law enforcement the tools they need to address gun-related criminal activity and better identify individuals who are a danger to themselves or others.”

Joining Speaker Fox at the press conference were Gov. Lincoln Chafee, Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed (D-Newport and Jamestown), Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, and State Police Superintendent Col. Steven O’Donnell. Each emphasized the dichotomy between upholding the Second Amendment and ensuring safety, a balance that has been difficult to strike in the charged days following the Newtown shooting. Supporters from both sides of the debate showed up in strong numbers, and one especially spirited anti-gun control activist disrupted the conference with a serious of provocative questions directed at Speaker Fox.

Each of these bills has now been introduced into the House, and each has an identical companion in the Senate. The package of gun bills includes (with House Bill and Senate Bill):

  • The Gun Control and Safe Firearms Act: Bans semi-automatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazines – HB5990 and SB0859
  • Increased penalties for using a stolen firearm during a crime of violence – HB5991 and SB0860
  • Increased penalties for violating existing weapons statutes, as well as the addition of new statutes prohibiting straw purchases of weapons (purchases of weapons by someone who is not the actual user) – HB5994 and SB0864
  • Compliance with national background checks and elevation of the Attorney General’s office as the highest permitting and licensing authority – HB5993 and SB0865
  • A law prohibiting minors from using firearms unless they are hunting, in a contest, or are supervised by a licensed adult over age 21 – HB5576 and SB0425
  • A law prohibiting the sale or possession of firearms with any altered or obliterated identification markers (such as a serial number) – HB5286 and SB0455
  • The creation of a Firearms Task Force to review Rhode Island’s existing gun laws – HB5995 and SB0863
  • The creation of a Behavioral Health and Firearms Safety Task Force – HB5992 and SB0862
  • The creation of the Relief for Disqualifiers Board, which is a board of appeals for anyone who is denied a firearm due to their mental health or substance abuse backgrounds – HB5996 and SB0861

The Assembly will take up these bills after this week’s legislative break, when committees will begin to hold testimony and take votes. Opponents have already launched efforts to water down the legislation, while supporters are just now mobilizing to see the bills through as they are written.

The fate of these bills in the General Assembly will depend on their support from rank-and-file Democrats, for gun control is a notorious wedge issue for the party in blue. Expect a pitched debate throughout the rest of the session on these measures, and keep an eye on both the House and Senate leadership teams: They have given the bills their imprimatur for the moment, but this could change if they believe the bills will not pass as written. Both leadership teams have opened themselves up for discussion, and each appears willing to hear all sides equally.

“This is the beginning of an important conversation taking place in every state in the nation and at the federal level,” said Paiva-Weed at the press conference. “We took a very methodical approach in the development of this legislation. I look forward to a vigorous public dialogue and a thorough committee vetting of the ideas presented today.”


photo of Rhode Island State House by thurdl01: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dlthurston/3967126839/