Voters in Exeter will go to the polls this Saturday to decide whether to keep or kick out four of the five members on the town council. The recall election was sparked by a request from four councilors who voted to ask the General Assembly to change how gun permits are issued in Exeter. Although the legislature never took up the request, advocates for gun rights responded by organizing the recall. The fight in Exeter shows how attempts to change local gun laws face sharp opposition.
In 38 of Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns, people seeking a concealed carry permit to carry a handgun can apply for that through their local police department. Exeter is the only community in the state without its own police department, so responsibility for issuing concealed carry permits there rests with the town clerk and the mostly ceremonial post of town sergeant. A majority of the Town Council felt the town clerk isn’t equipped to do background checks. So they voted to ask the General Assembly to take permitting out of the town clerk’s hands and give the task to the attorney general’s office.
The town councilors weren’t alone in thinking the state AG’s office is better equipped to process the permits. The Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association backed a bill this year to make the attorney general the sole authority for issuing concealed carry permits. The AG’s office would have more discretion in making its decisions, so critics say shifting responsibility there would make it harder to get gun permits. And when the Exeter Town Council tried to move authority for issuing concealed carry permits to the AG’s office hundreds of gun advocates packed a boisterous council meeting last March. Critics like former Exeter state senator Frank Maher say the town’s current process works just fine.
“As long as someone passes a background check by the FBI and is found to meet the criteria under the Second amendment, the Bill of Rights and the Rhode Island Constitution, they should receive their concealed carry permit,” Maher says to ringing applause. “Therefore, it’s none of the Town Council’s business to be even involved in this matter.”
Seventy-six-year-old Martha Stamp came to the Exeter Town Council meeting from South Kingstown to say she was frightened by a change to make it harder to get guns.
“Years ago, in another country they took away the guns and the regular people like you and I didn’t have them, but the elites and the police were the only ones who had guns,” says Stamp. “Think about it, folks. Our freedoms are going daily. Thank you very much."
Longtime Exeter resident Frank DiGregorio was the only person to speak up in support of the council.
“I’ve been watching what’s going on for over a year and I think this issue has been blown out of proportion,” DiGregorio says. “It’s not a gun rights issue by any means. It’s an administrative issue, an administrative issue that the town council feels it would like to correct. Nobody is impinging on the gun rights of anybody.”
In terms of public comment, DiGregorio was outnumbered about 10-to-1 by people calling the council’s action a power grab.
“I don’t have a gun, never had a gun, don’t really care who does and does not,” says Kim Ives of Exeter. “It’s simply a problem of I really don’t understand why you guys are interfering in this whatsoever. If you don’t like it, don’t be in office.”
Exeter is a rural town about 20 miles south of Providence, with about 5000 registered voters, and the community is dotted with signs advocating for and against the recall.
An ad hoc group rallying support for the recall, We the People of Exeter, joined with the Cranston-based Rhode Island Firearm Owners League to become eligible to raise money for its campaign. A spokesman for We the People of Exeter, Brian Bishop, nonetheless rejects suggestions that advocates for gun rights from outside Exeter have propelled the recall.
“Obviously, the recall has to come, the support for it, has to come from Exeter residents,” Bishop says. “Nobody from outside Exeter could file the initial petitions. Nobody could sign the petitions who is not a voter in Exeter. And this notion that interest in the recall or the recall itself is somehow kindled from outside of town is just a made-up story.”
Bishop says the recall is taking place because gun owners believe the town council majority didn’t take their concerns seriously during that boisterous meeting back in March. He says recall supporters are concerned about an erosion of their rights that could spread to other cities and towns.
“We wouldn’t want to see that elevated to the state and away from the town, when basically it’s an issue that’s handled at the municipal level in all the other cities and towns in Rhode Island,” Bishop says. “It’s because it’s the camel’s nose under the tent.”
Town Council President Arlene Hicks is one of the four councilors targeted for removal. Hicks says anyone who wanted to speak during the March meeting had an opportunity to do so. She says moving responsibility for issuing concealed carry permits to the attorney general’s office makes sense.
“No other town clerk in the state is required to issue any type of concealed carry permit, and our town clerk also is not a law enforcement official,” Hicks says. “She has no training in law enforcement. She cannot do the background check. She relies on the applicant to apply for the background check himself or herself and then she gets the results.”
Opponents of the recall are rallying with a Web site called “Save Exeter.” Hicks notes how the partisan control of the council is at stake in the recall.
“The winners in the last election were four Democrats and one independent,” she says. “It’s the four Democrats who are subject to the recall. If we are recalled, we would be replaced by the three Republicans who did not get elected in 2012, and then they would appoint a fourth member to replace the fourth Democrat.”
The recall election in Exeter is set to take place on the one-year anniversary of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. That shooting inspired a series of bills to make Rhode Island’s gun laws more stringent. Most of the legislation didn’t go anywhere – a situation attributed to the strength of the gun lobby and generally strong support for gun owners’ rights at the Statehouse. The results of the recall will show whether Exeter residents favor the local status quo or want to go in a different direction.