Gun control is about to take center stage again at RI State House. Here's what's proposed.
PROVIDENCE — Heading into a week of back-to-back hearings on gun bills, the National Rifle Association warned its Rhode Island members: "The Statehouse is back open, and anti-gun politicians are planning to take it out on law-abiding gun owners this week."
"The message to lawmakers should be simple ... No new gun laws! ... We need to tell them to do their job and enforce the laws which are already on the books."
Versions of this same message went up on the Facebook pages of a bevy of gun-enthusiast groups, such as the Rhode Island 2nd Amendment Coalition, the Federated Rhode Island Sportsmen's Clubs, Rhode Island Revolver and Rifle Association and the Rhode Island Firearm Owners League.
"Rally for your rights," the Sportsmen's Clubs urged members. "The gun grabbers keep using women and children to push their agenda, exploiting them as victims."
But these are not the only voices who will be seeking to make themselves heard when the House Judiciary Committee holds its marathon hearing on Wednesday, and the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
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In the days leading up to the hearings, others not as keen on joining the usual throng of demonstrators — some wearing red "Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America" T-shirts, and others the yellow "Gun Control Doesn't Work" shirts from the 2nd Amendment Coalition — sent written testimony.
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Jeanne Thomason of Cranston was among the letter-writers.
She begged lawmakers to pass Rep. Brandon Potter's bill [H7889] banning outdoor gun ranges within a mile of any K-12 school, because every time the "very loud" shooting begins, neighbors cringe and teachers and students are left "wondering if they could possibly be under attack."
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"Under no circumstances should our school children be cowering under their desks, reading letters of comfort from their parents. Instead, adults should be doing everything we can to PREVENT gun attacks in our schools,'' said the advocacy group Moms Demand Action on its Facebook page.
One of the first debates centered on (H7703), a stand-your-ground law proposed by Rep. Edward T. Cardillo Jr. which would affirm the right of a retail store owner "to use reasonable and necessary force to defend" against criminal activity, including: "vandalism, theft, or threatening behavior towards the owner, employees or customers."
A shop owner faced with a crime of violence - or a deadly weapon - would be freed from criminal or civil liability for injuring or killing the person.
The debate: what constitutes "reasonable"?
Rep. Carol McEntee, a lawyer, raised a concern about an outsized reaction to a teen who "steals a couple of cokes and maybe a Twinky. You're saying that person can pull out a gun and shoot this kid."
But the proponents said that is not what "reasonable and necessary" means. "If someone is stealing, shoplifting, you can't pull out a gun and shoot them,'' said House Minority Leader Blake Filippi.."
"Well, you should not be able to,' McEntee replied. "But it does say 'theft' in there."
""I found it very concerning," echoed Rep. Edith Ajello. "It looks to me like shoot first, and figure out [what happened] afterwards."
Other bills on the agenda run the gamut from the annual drive to ban the sale and possession of military-style weapons to the renewed effort by lawmakers to require the safe, locked storage of firearms, a requirement recommended by a gun-safety task force in 2018.
Making it a felony to store guns unlocked
Last year, Patti Alley waited hours for her turn to tell Rhode Island lawmakers about her sister Allyson DosReis's suicide with a loaded gun belonging to her partner, an active-duty member of the military and firearm safety instructor for the state police.
"I believe [that] if the gun had been secured it would have prevented my sister from acting impulsively. It would have bought some time, and sometimes when you can interrupt a suicide ... you can save a life."
On Wednesday, Stephen Dambruch, the chief of the attorney general's criminal division, cited a more recent case in Johnston, in February, when 16-year-old Dillon Viens was fatally shot with an unsecured firearm while he and his friends were "playing around" with an unsecured weapon at an uncle's home.
"The weapon discharged and a 16-year-old boy lost his life. ... So when people ask why do we need this law," Dambruch said he points to this case, and a second, in which a Burrillville man had hundreds of guns, many unsecured, in a home with children.
This year's legislation, H7300, again seeks to make it a felony for the owner of any firearm to store it unlocked. A gun owner who did so would face a fine of up to $3,000, and if the gun was loaded and a child got access to it and caused an injury, the gun owner would face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.
"We're not talking about what might happen. I am talking about what has happened," Dambruch said. "This law would assist us in addressing those situations [and] with a $3,000 fine, hopefully to prevent a tragedy from occuring, and with the felony to properly address and punish address someone who has been...reckless."
In wrtten testimony, the National Shooting Sports Foundation - which calls itself "the trade association for America's firearms, ammunition, hunting and recreational shooting sports industry" - gave these reasons for opposing the safe storage bill:
"NSSF does not believe that a state has the right to tell law-abiding gun-owners the proper way to store their firearms. This should be an individual’s choice based upon his or her living arrangements," wrote the group's spokesman, Jake McGuigan.
"One needs to only look at the text of the bill to realize the true intent of language 'in order to render such firearm inoperable by any person other than the owner'...In the current environment with crimes rates though the roof making a firearm inoperable is not appropriate in self defense situations. "
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Other bills include:
*H6616: A prohibition on the sale of ammunition without a background check by the state police, a municipal law-enforcement agency or the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
*H7457: An increase in the minimum age for purchasing a firearm or ammunition from 18 to 21 years old.
*H7764: Disqualifying anyone with a prior conviction for possessing a firearm without a license from buying or possessing a firearm.
Some bills would expand gun owners' rights
From the other side of the divide are several bills, including H7301, to lift the current restrictions on purchase, possession and use of stun guns and tasers in light of a recent court decision.
Earlier this month, U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith struck down a state law barring the possession of stun guns and tasers as an unconstitutional restriction on the right to bear arms.
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Pro-gun legislators have also renewed their bid (H7456) to allow people with permits to carry concealed weapons in other states to carry them here.
The House Judiciary Committee, unlike its Senate counterpart, is not holding another hearing this year on the annual bid to ban "military-style assault weapons'' and feeding devices capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
These bills are still alive. They were reintroduced with explicit backing from the governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, attorney general and secretary of state.
House spokesman Larry Berman explains: "The assault weapons (H6615) and high-capacity magazines (H6614) are not on the House Judiciary agenda because they have been carried over from the 2021 session by the sponsor."
Under this House-only rule, "testimony from last year’s hearing follows into the current session."
The proposed limit on high-capacity magazines was co-sponsored last year by more than half of the House of Representatives.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: RI gun control bills include assault weapons ban, concealed carry