Will RI gun-control laws change following the Texas school massacre?

·5 min read

PROVIDENCE — From both sides of the partisan aisle came laments on Wednesday over the deadliest school shooting since the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.

But that does not mean the candidates running for top office in Rhode Island all agree on what, if anything, needs to be done here to try to prevent something similar to what happened Tuesday in a rural Texas elementary school, where a gunman killed at least 19 children and two adults.

From Gov. Dan McKee and at least one of his Democratic primary challengers, Helena Foulkes, came urgent calls for action by the General Assembly on pending bills to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

More: People gather at the RI State House for hearings on gun bills

More: Are existing gun laws being enforced in RI? New report provides answers

"It's time for the General Assembly to act immediately and pass those common-sense gun safety bills and send them to my desk for signature – it is time," McKee said.

From Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who is also running for governor, came this tweet:

"I am reeling from the unspeakable horror of another mass shooting. Vulnerable children & adults who cared for them were shot & killed today. We need to find the courage to stop this ongoing chaos through common sense gun reform & increased investments in mental health services."

Ashley Kalus, a Republican candidate for governor who previously said Rhode Island does not need any more gun-control laws, also sounded a call to action.

"As a mom, I can’t imagine the overwhelming pain that parents must be feeling in Uvalde," she tweeted. "My heart breaks for the victims & those impacted by this cowardly act. Senseless acts of gun violence have torn far too many communities apart, & more must be done to prevent future tragedies."

Kalus later issued a news release explaining what "more" means to her:

"Our existing gun laws need to be enforced ... and every school in our state should have a police officer present to defend our vulnerable children ... We must [also] invest in mental health services to ensure we stop these devastating acts of violence before they occur."

Among the Republicans running for statewide office, only Jim Lathrop, the North Kingstown finance director running for state treasurer, declared his support for the proposed ban on assault weapons/high-capacity magazines," Lathrop told The Journal on Wednesday.

"I believe I am the only candidate for state office that has served in the armed forces and have experience of using assault weapons," he added. "I served six years in the U.S. Army Reserves.

"As for my fellow Republicans who may question me on this position, I ask they respect my feelings as I respect theirs," Lathrop said. "I grew up in a rural community. We raised pigs and turkeys. We hunted. When you take a life, even if an animal, you have a different respect for life."

On this issue, Republican Lathrop and the two Democrats vying for the job – former Central Falls Mayor James Diossa and Rhode Island Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor – seem to agree.

"I absolutely support common sense gun reforms like the prohibitions on high-capacity magazines and assault weapons currently pending before the General Assembly," Diossa said Wednesday. "As Mayor, I was proud to be a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns."

Pryor said he too supports these "common sense gun measures" and also believes "we need to build schools in our state that are ever more secure – including advanced safety features."

But the only "weapons" bills to see any traction at the State House so far this year are the two that were on the House calendar Wednesday.

One requires correctional officers to requalify annually to carry a pistol or revolver. The other adds certain inspectors to the list of "peace officers" allowed to carry a concealed firearm.

Asked about the likelihood of passage this year of bills to ban "assault weapons" and place a 10-round limit on ammunition clips, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi told reporters at an unrelated event:

The bills "are very much alive. They are under active consideration."

He would not rate the chances of passage, but said: "All of the recent events in Buffalo and in Texas certainly impact what goes into the thought process," he said.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio did not go that far, issuing this statement:

"The Senate has passed strong firearm safety legislation in recent years, including the Red Flag law to remove guns from individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others."

"Additional firearms legislation was heard earlier this session by the Senate Judiciary Committee and is under review.”

For the record, the proposed assault weapons ban was introduced with explicit backing from the governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, attorney general and secretary of state.

The definition of what constitutes an "assault weapon" is long and detailed. Among the definitions: "A semi-automatic rifle with a fixed magazine capacity exceeding 10 rounds."

In the wake of Tuesday's school massacre, McKee called for "immediate action on crucial gun safety legislation in Rhode Island and at the federal level."

In a news release, Foulkes said: "Governor McKee says he supports gun safety legislation — it’s time for him to prove it.

"He should bring together legislative leaders TODAY and demand action on gun reform. There is no excuse for the fact that Rhode Island has still not banned assault weapons and high capacity magazines. Getting this done requires real leadership, not lip service.”

On Thursday, Republican state Rep. Michael Chippendale, one of the leading gun-rights advocates in the House, Tweeted an opposite point of view: :

"Regrettably, the governor rather work on scoring political points while standing on the bodies of dead children than address the less-sexy issue of mental health and how our state's negligence in addressing it only contributes to these behaviors."

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Texas school massacre sparks renewed calls for RI assault weapons ban