Leaders in RI House, Senate line up behind new gun-control measures

PROVIDENCE —  With guns now the No. 1 issue at the Rhode Island State House – and advocates in orange T-shirts packing the hallways shouting "time for a vote" – House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio on Tuesday pledged "meaningful gun reform"  this session.

Faced with escalating demands for action in the wake of the latest mass shootings by lone gunmen in a rural Texas school and a Buffalo, New York, supermarket, the two Rhode Island legislative leaders issued this statement:

“We are committed to passing meaningful gun reform legislation this session. We have been working on this issue with the sponsors and committee chairs for several months.”

It is not clear which bill or bills they have committed to passing.

'Enough is enough': RI lawmakers call for action on 'common sense' gun legislation

Bills already in the legislative hopper would ban so-called assault rifles, place a 10-round limit on ammunition feeding devices, raise the age to buy a long gun from 18 to 21 years old and prohibit the open carrying of a loaded rifle or shotgun.

Also pending: a bill akin to a law in next-door Massachusetts to require the safe, locked storage of firearms when they are not in use, a proposal born here out of tragedy.

Shekarchi and Ruggerio issued their joint statement hours ahead of a news conference where lawmakers, top state officials and union leaders joined the mother of drive-by shooting victim Esscence T. Christal in demanding action now.

After the deaths of 19 children and two adults in Texas and the fatal shooting two weeks earlier of 10 in New York, both at the hands of lone gunmen, Christal's mother, Diana Garlington, said: "We should not have to live in fear.... We should not be afraid to go to a grocery store. We should not be afraid to send our children to school. This can happen anywhere. This can happen in our own backyard.

On the heels of mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas, gun-control advocates in Rhode Island showed up at the State House in force for a rally on Tuesday.

And, "when our children die, we die too," she said. "Enough is enough. We demand a future free of gun violence."

"Every parent, the tens of thousands in Rhode Island, and millions across this country, have the right to put their child on the bus in the morning ... and expect they will return later that afternoon," said Lawrence Purtill, president of the National Education Association of Rhode Island.

"No parent should ever listen to the last words spoken by their child on the release of a 911 call," he said.

Activists take to the halls of the State House during Tuesday's gun-control rally.

Leading off an hour of pleas to the legislature to pass "common sense" gun laws, former R.I. State Police lieutenant and current Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Cynthia Coyne told a throng of gun-control advocates outside the State House why she sponsored the bill prohibiting high-capacity magazines.

"[Except] for those in the military or law enforcement, there is no need for anyone to possess a high-capacity magazine. It’s not designed to be used for hunting or sport; it is designed for only one purpose – to kill another human being."

"Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey has proposed prohibiting the possession of loaded rifles or shotguns in public. What possible justification is there for someone to walk down the road with a loaded shotgun?

"Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin has proposed raising the gun buying age to 21. Does it make any sense that a young adult cannot purchase alcohol or tobacco until they are 21, but can purchase a firearm at 18?"

Continuing down the list of bills "held for further study" in both the House and the Senate, she said:

"As a mother of four children, a retired member of law enforcement, and as a responsible public official, I ... say the time for rhetoric has passed, and the time to act is now."

One after another, Gov. Dan McKee, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, Attorney General Peter Neronha, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea echoed her words in English – and in Gorbea's case – in Spanish ( “¡Basta Ya!”)..

"Send the bills to my desk. I'll get out some pens,'' said McKee, later telling a reporter he earned his "F' rating from the NRA proudly.

Activists take to the halls of the State House during Tuesday's gun-control rally.

In his turn, Neronha said:

"High-capacity magazines are not a theoretical problem in the state of Rhode Island. ... In just four months, September to December of last year, 38 cases involving high-capacity magazines" with at least 16 rounds and some "over 30."

"The notorious shootout on Carolina [Avenue] in Providence: when police went into that apartment they found a 30-round magazine, a 40-round magazine, a 50-round magazine and a 60-round magazine.

"When those magazines are legal, are we more or less safe?" ("No," the crowd shouted)  "If we back the Blues, back the bills,'' he said.

Will Rhode Island: gun-control laws change following the Texas school massacre?

"Pro-gun" lawmakers and advocates are working behind the scenes to try to dissuade lawmakers from "stripping their rights," as they view the stakes.

Groups such as the Rhode Island Revolver and Rifle Association and the Rhode Island Firearm Owners' League have taken to Facebook to urge their members to deluge lawmakers with statements of opposition.

"As many of you know, the progressives in the Rhode Island General Assembly are capitalizing on a national tragedy for political gain," according to a flyer posted by the groups. "Their true objective is to move the political needle in Rhode Island further and further to the left, rather than making our schools, churches and shopping centers safer."

Within the legislative ranks, Republican Rep. Michael Chippendale makes this argument:

"It’s clear that the gun-control proposals that we see every year won’t have an impact – if they did, the 1-2 bills we’ve passed nearly every year since 2012 would have decreased the criminal use of firearms, yet we’ve been seeing an increase in RI and across the nation."

"For example, so-called 'assault weapons' are banned in NY, yet the Buffalo murderer wasn’t slowed by that law," said Chippendale, one of the leading gun-rights voices in the legislature.

Check out the laws in our surrounding states: How do the New England states compare on gun control legislation?

"It’s further clear that until we take school safety seriously and harden our school buildings like we do courthouses, government buildings, airports, banks, etc., while also placing armed and trained law-enforcement officers in every school building, we will continue to leave our children in harm’s way," he said in response to a Journal inquiry.

"While it may be emotionally and intellectually easier to blame the firearm, we need to accept the fact that there is a serious mental-health crisis in our nation," he said. "It is particularly impacting our young boys – and the last 3 years of COVID have only amplified that trend."

These are the bills at the center of the debate: 

-Limit Magazine Capacity to 10 Rounds H6614 (Caldwell) S2653 (Coyne)

-Regulate Assault Weapons H6615 (Caldwell) S2224 (Miller)

-Prohibit Open Carry in Public H7358 (Felix) S2825 (McCaffrey)

-Raise the Age to 21 to Buy Long Guns and Ammo H7457 (Tanzi) S2637 (Goodwin)

-Strengthen Safe Firearm Storage Laws H7300 (Caldwell) S2734 (Seveney)

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: RI gun control: House speaker, Senate president line up behind changes