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Bill to ban assault-style weapons introduced in General Assembly

Legislation would build on gun control package passed last year

Gov. Dan McKee, alongside bill sponsors, recently held a press conference introducing legislation that would ban the sale of assault-style weapons, such as AR-15s, in Rhode Island. If the bill passes, the state will join nine others enacting bans on certain types of assault-style weapons.

The bill, if passed, would build on sweeping legislative changes made last year. The general assembly passed three gun control bills: legislation limiting magazine capacity to 10 rounds, raising the minimum purchasing age for rifles and shotguns from 18 to 21 and prohibiting the public open carry of long guns. 

The bill would restrict the “manufacture, sale, purchase and possession of assault weapons” within the state. The legislation would allow individuals currently in legal possession of such weapons to maintain possession so long as they comply with new registration requirements.

An effort to curb gun violence


State Rep. Jason Knight (D-67), the bill’s sponsor in the House, said his motivation for passing the bill comes down to one simple reason: preventing gun violence, which has “increased in recent years,” according to the Pew Research Center.

“In America, mass shootings are a more and more common occurrence (and) assault weapons are often the preferred tool of the shooters,” Knight said. “We would be remiss as a legislative body if we didn’t do everything we possibly could to prevent and minimize the gun violence (in) the state, especially given how it’s just a growing part of American existence.”

Sydney Montstream-Quas, chair of the Rhode Island Coalition for Gun Violence Board of Directors, advocated for the weapons to be banned because of their capacity to harm.

Citing conversations with emergency room physicians and coroners, Montstream-Quas said that assault-style weapons cause a “destruction of a person’s body … unlike other weapons.”

She said citizens should not be able to possess these kinds of weapons, which have “no real purpose … except to kill.” She added that former military members have told her that they’ve seen what assault weapons can do in combat, and “they should not be anywhere near the public.”

Montstream-Quas said she feels that legislators who repeatedly vote against gun control legislation have “blood on their hands.” 

Gun control legislation has been demonstrated as an effective means of minimizing gun deaths within states, according to Knight. 

Relative to other states, Rhode Island has fairly strict gun laws: the 13th-strongest in the country. But there is more progress to be made, Knight said. 

“We have a good gun law regime,” he added. “But it can be made better with the addition of the assault weapons ban.” 

Opposition to the bill


A majority of the Senate has expressed support for banning assault weapons sales. Still, the bill has failed to pass previously, according to Knight, who pointed to “politics,” rather than any specific language in the bill, as the reason for its past failures. He added the bill has undergone several iterations, with this year’s version including a “one-feature test” to determine what qualifies as an assault weapon.

Brenda Jacob, secretary and lobbyist for the Rhode Island Revolver and Rifle Association, disagreed, stating that the bill itself is problematic and “deceitful as far as its terminology.” 

“The definitions include every firearm out there, so it’s not an assault weapons ban, it’s an all-weapons ban,” Jacob said. It’s an “all-out assault on gun owners.”

Per the bill’s language, the “assault-style” weapons that would be banned include semi-automatic shotguns, rifles and pistols, depending on their magazine sizes and “advanced” features, such as grenade launchers and telescopic stocks.

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Senate Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz (R-23) said she’s never supported the legislation and doesn’t anticipate that she ever will. She claimed the bill would lead to the banning of handguns in addition to assault-style weapons, which she said was “not acceptable.” 

Montstream-Quas said she believes much of the opposition to the assault weapons ban stems from “miseducation and misunderstanding,” with the opposition assuming that the bill’s advocates want to ban all guns.

She said that RICGV doesn’t want to prevent law-abiding citizens from hunting or target shooting, or otherwise owning a gun legally. According to Montstream-Quas, the legislation’s goal is simply to decrease “how lethal some of these guns are out in the community.”

Despite describing their opposition as “entrenched,” Knight spoke with optimism about the future of gun control laws in Rhode Island. “Slowly but surely, we are winning the battle, and we’re changing minds.”

Obstacles to passage

The House is “ready and able to vote and pass this bill,” Knight said, adding that the challenge would be ensuring the bill remains a priority.

He urged those supportive of the bill to reach out to their representative or senator. Due to Rhode Island’s small size, Knight said its constituents are “blessed with the ability to seriously reach out and talk to their elected officials in a way that people in other states maybe can’t do.” 

Organizations like the RICGV are helping facilitate those connections between legislators and constituents, according to Montstream-Quas.

Jacob and the RIRRA are mobilizing efforts to oppose the bill, including hosting a rally at the State House and helping individuals testify against the bill. 

For de la Cruz, opposing the bill comes down to defending the right to bear arms. “I am a daughter of immigrants,” she said. “My parents came to this country because they… felt like it was a place to have freedom and economic opportunity to grow,” a freedom that includes the right to bear arms.

Both Knight and Montstream-Quas emphasized that the bill isn’t perfect, but said that every piece of gun control legislation that passes makes a difference.

“We can’t just rest on our laurels when it comes to legislation designed to prevent gun violence,” Knight said. “It’s a race, and we have to stay ahead of it.”

Yael Sarig

Yael is a senior staff writer covering city and state politics. She is junior, and hails from the Bay Area.

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