Despite increased public support, R.I. lawmakers fail to restrict guns

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This legislative session was no better than the previous two in terms of legislation passed to increase gun safety and reduce gun violence. But the tide seems to be turning in efforts to break the stranglehold the National Rifle Association has over our legislature: The Rhode Island Coalition against Gun Violence commissioned a poll this session that showed that a high percentage of Rhode Islanders agreed with the legislation it supported.

The local arm of the NRA is a group called the 2nd Amendment Coalition, and it works with a number of sportsmen groups to rally opposition to gun-safety legislation and introduce bills to ease restrictions on gun ownership. These groups employ paid lobbyists.

Local groups on the side of increasing gun safety and reducing gun violence are the Rhode Island Coalition against Gun Violence, the Rhode Island chapter of Moms Demand Action, the Rhode Island Coalition against Domestic Violence and the Religious Coalition for a Violence-Free Rhode Island. These groups held rallies, lobby days and news conferences to call attention to the issues surrounding gun violence with the goal of raising the awareness of legislators and the general public.

During this session, the R.I. Coalition against Gun Violence increased its list of partner organizations to more than 95, including the Rhode Island Board of Rabbis, several synagogues, and the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Alliance.

This year, the coalition supported the same three bills as last year: to ban guns from school grounds and close a loophole in existing law; ban so-called high capacity magazines; and require anyone under a permanent restraining order or convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor to give up their guns.

High capacity magazines, as defined in the bill, are any magazine carrying more than 10 rounds. A number of states, including Connecticut and Massachusetts, have banned their use.

The No Guns in Schools bill would prohibit anyone other than a law enforcement officer from carrying a gun on K-12 school grounds. This would close a loophole in existing law. While it is a crime to carry a firearm on school grounds now, it does not apply to concealed-carry permit holders, who could be a parent, teacher, staff member or visitor. Law enforcement supported this bill.

The Coalition against Gun Violence reached out to all school committees and many city and town councils asking them to sign a resolution in support of this ban. Twenty-five school committees signed the resolution this legislative session. Eight city and town councils voted and passed the resolution. In spite of this, the bill died in committee in both chambers of the General Assembly.

The third bill dealt with guns and domestic violence. A significant problem this year was that there were several different bills dealing with domestic violence and guns, introduced on behalf of different organizations.

Right now, state law prohibits gun ownership by anyone convicted of a domestic violence felony, but not a misdemeanor. Federal law does prohibit gun ownership when there is a conviction for a domestic violence misdemeanor. There is evidence that domestic violence may escalate over time, thus making access to a firearm a particular danger. The bill would have required the convicted person to turn over all weapons to the police or dispose of them through a licensed firearms dealer. It would also have required someone under a permanent restraining order where a hearing was held to give up their guns.

After hearings before House and Senate committees at which many witnesses were heard, none of these bills got out of committee or even got a vote in committee.

Meanwhile, the gun-rights community introduced three times as many bills. Among their goals was to make it easier to get and keep a concealed-carry weapons permit and to grant reciprocity if someone had a permit from certain other states. One of their bills that would have made it more difficult for chiefs of police to deny a concealed-carry permit passed the House and would have made it to the Senate floor if not for the intervention of Rhode Island State Police Col. Steven O’Donnell and other chiefs of police who reached out to the Senate president and other lawmakers, requesting they kill the bill.

One bill dealing with guns and domestic violence did pass – it requires anyone convicted of a domestic violence felony to surrender their guns. Since it was already illegal for convicted felons to possess guns, this was someone’s idea of a feel-good measure.

DAVID H. LEACH is a past chair of the Community Relations Council and represents Temple Emanu-El with RICAGV