Following the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — when 20 children and six educators were murdered — several Rhode Island officials have broached the subject of strengthening the state’s gun laws.
Rhode Island has some of the strictest gun restrictions in the country — only California, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland and Hawaii received higher scores from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, an organization that advocates increased gun control across the country. But the recent tragedy has galvanized gun control advocates to push for restrictions usually outside the realm of debate, such as a statewide ban on all semiautomatic weapons.
State legislators have not introduced any gun control bills on the floor of the General Assembly, but Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 has convened a task force of legislators, public safety officials, law enforcement officials and the attorney general “to understand what the law currently requires, what changes may or may not need to be made,” said Christine Hunsinger, Chafee’s press secretary.
Rep. Teresa Tanzi, D-South Kingstown, Narragansett, said she is working on legislation aimed at reducing the number of homicides committed with firearms. Though she has not committed to any particular proposals, she said she is considering the merits of banning many military-style assault weapons as well as limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds and improving the enforcement of laws already on the books.
Rhode Island is one of three states and Washington, D.C. that require a minimum seven-day waiting period before the purchase of any firearm, though several other states have waiting periods for some firearms and not others, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. It also mandates that individuals secure a “safety certificate” — a license obtained after a minimum two-hour class in gun safety — before purchasing a handgun or selling firearms.
Gun control advocates point to these restrictions to explain Rhode Island’s low rate of gun murders, as well as other policies, like requiring gun owners to report to the authorities the loss or theft of a firearm — in place in seven states, including Rhode Island, as well as Washington, D.C. Gun homicides killed about .57 out of every 100,000 Rhode Islanders in 2011, one-fifth of the national average, according to the Guardian. Louisiana had the highest rate of firearm murders of any state, with 10.16 of every 100,000 Louisianans dying from gun violence in 2011.
Rhode Island may not have the most acute gun problem in the country, Tanzi said, but there is still “no need for (residents) to have these types of military weapons.” After the Newtown shooting, Rhode Islanders were “forming a line” to talk about additional gun control, she said. Tanzi said most people were willing to have frank discussions about the merits of gun control, but she added that she was disappointed that “second amendment advocates have drawn their line in the sand,” opposing all restrictions on military-style assault weapons.
Semiautomatic firearms are often defined as assault weapons — a political, not technical, classification — when they share features commonly found on military weapons, such as pistol grips or flash suppressors.
Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, Glocester and Coventry, said he would examine any bill that came to the floor of the House but would refuse to “support any form of gun control that is going to be simply for the purposes of making something happen for the sake of making something happen.” Since the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban failed to reduce gun violence across the country, Rhode Islanders should not expect a state law to make an impact, he said. “It’s been proven — statistically proven — that an assault weapons ban does not prevent crime.”
Chafee is refraining from commenting on any pending legislation before a bill comes to his desk for his signature or veto, Hunsinger said. Bills often change substantially before passing through the legislature, she added.
Calls for action
In the wake of the Newtown shooting, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo spearheaded gun control legislation that included a ban on military-style assault weapons, an expansion of background checks and a seven-round limit on magazine capacity.
Some gun control advocates have pushed the legislature to go even further than New York to ban all semiautomatic weapons. The Providence City Council passed a resolution Jan. 4, requesting the General Assembly ban all ‘semiautomatic weapons’ in Rhode Island.
Semiautomatic weapons are firearms that fire a bullet, extract and eject the casing and then reload the cartridge in the firing chamber from one pull of the trigger. Chippendale said 90 percent of firearms fall into this category — under a semiautomatic weapon ban, only pump-action shotguns and revolvers would be legal.
Councilman Sam Zurier said he supported the resolution because he wants to cut the number of gun deaths in Providence. But he added that at the time of the vote he did not understand how widely the term ‘semiautomatic weapons’ applies. “Probably, in hindsight, (the resolution) might go a little further than I would like,” he said.
Michael Hammond, the legislative counsel for Gun Owners of America, a national gun advocacy organization with about 300,000 members nationally, said his organization opposes all gun control at both the state and national levels. “No one thinks any of these things would have had any impact on Newtown,” he said. He added that he “understand(s) what the game is — pick a tragedy for its political benefit.”
Zurier defended the principle behind the bill, arguing that a city should “have sensible controls on these weapons in an urban environment.” Since “there’s not a lot of hunting in the city of Providence … there’s no need for people to carry these things around,” he said.
Though Zurier said he did not know if one state enacting restrictions on assault weapons could make a difference, “if several states step up” like New York did, then “maybe” gun violence would fall. If Rhode Island leads on the issue of gun violence, it “could spur on additional states,” he added.
Chippendale pointed to illegal gun ownership and a culture that glorifies gun violence to explain the high rate of violence across the country. “I feel the more law abiding citizens who possess (guns) legally and rightfully … the less crime there will be in an area,” he said.
The state can crack down on illegal guns, and as long “you are able to … walk into any house and the kids are playing games blowing peoples’ heads off,” firearm murders will still be a problem, Chippendale said. “While Hollywood is promoting gun control, they have Sylvester Stallone promoting” his new movie called ‘Bullet to the Head.’
“When we make violence okay, it’s going to happen,” he said.
Despite the passage of the city council resolution about a month ago, it seems unlikely the proposed ban on all semiautomatic weapons will ever go before the General Assembly.
Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence, said he planned to introduce a bill in the legislature on behalf of the city but was still uncertain about what specific provisions the mayor would request. He said he did not think the mayor is looking to ban all semiautomatic weapons, only assault weapons. “Those large-capacity magazines, assault weapons for war — on city streets, we certainly don’t need all of that,” he said.
Providence Mayor Angel Taveras reiterated his support for increased gun control measures in his State of the City address last week. “One crime is too much crime, and the job of keeping our city safe never ends,” he said in his speech. “I am committed to passing reasonable, common-sense gun control legislation this year that puts Rhode Island in line with our neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut.”
Last year, Metts introduced a bill that would have allowed the state’s cities and towns to pass their own laws regarding gun control. Currently, only the General Assembly is permitted to legislate on gun control. He said he thought a similar provision might be in the bill again, but he added that Taveras was concerned rural areas might use such a law to remove restrictions on gun ownership. Connecticut has averted this problem by only allowing its towns freedom to add gun control restrictions more stringent than those in state law.
“Especially in a small state like Rhode Island, access to guns will depend on not only laws in one specific city, but laws of other cities,” said Brian Knight, professor of economics, who has studied the national movement of guns from states with lenient gun laws to states with strict gun laws. “It is relatively difficult for cities to pass laws” that effectively curtail gun ownership, because people can buy guns in other towns and municipalities with more lenient laws, he said.
Chippendale went further, arguing that a bill giving legislative authority to municipalities does not make sense. “A state like Rhode Island could never have 39 individual municipalities have their own various concealed weapon ordinances, discharge ordinances, transportation ordinances,” he said. “It would be absolute mayhem for the police department.”
Hammond said he also opposes this legislation, because “states tend to mellow out their crazier anti-gun aspects.” If municipalities “think they can cause problems for gun owners, I think in fact they will.”
Despite Rhode Island’s consistent support of gun control, opposition to new restrictions remains visible, especially in the more rural areas. “People want to keep their guns,” said Wendy Schiller, associate professor of political science, but “legislators will act when they think it will actually make a difference.”
Though both branches of the General Assembly have strong democratic majorities, the National Rifle Association donated $13,375 to various representatives and senators during the last election cycle, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, which received its information from the Rhode Island Board of Elections. Donations included $2,000 to Senate president M. Teresa Paiva-Weed, D-Newport, $1,600 to Speaker of the House Gordon Fox, D-Providence and $500 to Chippendale, among others, over the past two years.
While no one can determine for sure how much of an effect, if any, the donations will have on an effort to pass stricter gun legislation, Schiller said, “Nationally and at the state level, the NRA is influential because it gives money.” But she added that the NRA is “most influential in states that care about guns” more than Rhode Island does.
Tanzi said she thought lobbyist dollars would have no effect on the debate in the General Assembly. Donations from groups like the NRA do “not provide (lobbyists) with any special access to the legislators,” she said. “There is no understanding with lobbyists that we will be voting any more one way or another.” But she added that she cannot “say that’s an absolute.”
The National Institute on Money in State Politics did not list any gun control advocacy groups among the major donors in the past two years.