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R.I. Governor to sign bill limiting access to guns for domestic abusers

Rhode Island joins 27 other states, Washington D.C. in passing firearms bill

Convicted domestic abusers in Rhode Island will be restricted from owning firearms once the Protect Rhode Island Families Act is signed by Gov. Gina Raimondo this week. By implementing more restrictive measures for gun owners convicted of domestic violence, Rhode Island now joins 27 other states and Washington, D.C.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Teresa Tanzi, D-Narragansett, and Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence, was passed Sept. 19 in the House with 58 yes votes and the Senate with 33 yes votes. The bill was initially introduced three years ago by Tanzi, but the proposal was defeated at the time.

“It sounds like common sense legislation, but each year we found that it hit roadblocks and had obstacles from different perspectives in the legislature,” said Deborah DeBare, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “So this year we were really pleased to see a revised version of the bill come out that had support from both the House leadership and the Senate leadership.”

[infogram id="9ffb8760-0250-4820-ac97-e89309c307f8" prefix="r56" format="interactive" title="States with domestic violence gun laws"]

Different groups — such as the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, as well as a large religious coalition — all advocated for the legislation by attending hearings, publishing papers, lobbying the state house, writing letters and meeting with officials.

Though federal law already restricts domestic abusers from possessing firearms, there was no state-level enforcement in Rhode Island. Tanzi cited a comprehensive study by Everytown for Gun Safety that reviewed three years’ worth of protective orders throughout Rhode Island and found that the courts only issued for firearms to be surrendered 13 percent of the time, despite complainants specifically indicating that people’s lives had been threatened with use of their spouse’s gun.

This legislation closes the state-level loophole by requiring that persons convicted of domestic violence and under restraining orders forfeit any guns in their possession within 24 hours. The guns are first to be transferred to a licensed firearms dealer before a third party — who can neither be a relative of the prohibited person nor someone residing in the same household — assumes responsibility of the firearms.

Prohibited persons could collect their guns upon completing their sentence or when their restraining orders are lifted, but the bill imposes severe penalties on persons who manage to take their guns back before their prohibition period is over.

“We know that easy access to a gun for domestic abusers can put the victim in an extremely dangerous situation,” said Jennifer Boylan, a volunteer leader of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “We know that (in) states … where domestic abusers do not have easy access to guns, there’s lower instances of domestic violence shootings and homicides. So we know these laws work.”

According to the study conducted by Everytown, the risk of homicide is increased five-fold when an abuser has access to a firearm. In Rhode Island specifically, the study found that 28 percent of women who were killed by their partners between 2008 to 2012 were shot to death.

Before the bill was passed, the National Rifle Association issued a statement in June: “Anti-gun groups have co-opted domestic violence organizations simply to notch a victory that they can use as momentum for their larger gun ban agenda.” The statement called on Rhode Island gun owners to push their legislators to oppose the bill.

“The Second Amendment folks and the NRA folks were worried that this was just a superficial attempt to have people’s guns taken away. And it really was not the case,” said Tanzi. “It was 100 percent data-driven, and it had nothing to do with taking guns away from law-abiding, responsible gun owners.”

“What we have seen is many, many states over the past 10 years have strengthened laws against domestic abusers,” said Adam Winkler, professor of constitutional law at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. “And, in fact, it’s been the kind of restrictive gun law that’s even been adopted in states that are quite hostile to gun control as a general matter.”


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