A nine-point plan intended to reduce gun-related violence and reduce the threat of a school shooting in Rhode Island was unveiled by leading elected and public-safety officials at the Statehouse Tuesday afternoon. Legislative leaders repeatedly called the proposal a starting point for discussion, raising questions about what exactly will meet with General Assembly muster before the legislature ends it session in June.
House Speaker Gordon Fox says leadership feels compelled to do something after the school shooting that claimed 26 lives, including 20 young students, in Newtown Connecticut, last December. But he also said three to four months of discussion are not enough to address the issues related to gun violence.
"I personally agree with these pieces of legislation, agree there should be a ban on these assault weapons, but I'm open to speaker of the House to a sound logical debate on these issues. But the first step has to be introducing these bills, so today is the first step. We're introducing the legislation and let the debate begin. Those in the room that don't support this group of legislation, make your case. Those that do, make your case."
Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed took up a theme cited earlier in the news conference by Governor Lincoln Chafee: how lawmakers need to balance competing demands when it comes to gun-related proposals:
“I have complete confidence that the members of the General Assembly have the ability to strike the balance between the Second Amendment and the demand by the vast majority of the public that I have heard from to ensure that our children are safe and our public schools are safe.”
Here's a rundown on the proposals in the legislative package:
-- Ban the manufacture, sale, purchase or possession of semi-automatic assault weapons after July 1. Assault weapon is defined in this case as a semi-automatic rifle that can accept a detachable magazine and has at least two other characteristics, including a folding or telescoping stock, a thumbhole stock, a bayonet mount, a pistol grip protruding conspicuously beneath the weapon, etc. Magazines that could accommodate more than 10 rounds of ammunition would also be prohibited.
-- Increasing the maximum penalty for carrying a stolen firearm while committing a crime of violence, from 1o to 15 years for a first offense.
-- Creating a task force to support RI's full participation in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. For some of the shortcomings in doing that, click here.
-- Creating a board to consider appeals from individuals if they are denied a firearm based on a mental health adjudication, commitment, or for substance abuse backgrounds.
-- Creating a task force to review RI's gun laws and report back to the governor and General Assembly by next January 1.
-- Require a person seeking a permit or license to carry a pistol or revolver to undergo national criminal background checks, via the attorney general's office.
-- Increase penalties for existing weapons statutes and make straw purchasing -- the use of a front person -- a crime.
-- Make it illegal for for anyone under 18 to possess a gun, unless they are involved in a competition, hunting, or are accompanied by a parent or qualified adult.
-- Make it illegal to manufacture, sell, purchase or possess a gun with an altered, obliterated or removed mark of identification.
Efforts to pass some of these proposals -- such as criminalizing gun possession for minors -- have failed in recent years at the General Assembly. The legislature has a considerable cohort of gun owners, and there hasn't been much of a counter-force to oppose the influence of the gun lobby.
The legislative proposal unveiled Tuesday attracted mixed reactions.
Jake McGuigan, director of state affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, says he supports stronger sentences for gun-related crimes and raising the focus on mental health, but opposes a ban on selling or possessing so-called assault weapons.
“I don’t think addressing the cosmetic features of firearms and rifles, and rifles which are not used in the commission of a crime in Rhode Island – actually been used twice in the last eight years – will address anything.”
Kim Ziegelmayer of Smithfield says she’s part of a group of about 65 Rhode Islanders pushing for tougher gun laws as a response to the school shooting last year in Newtown. Ziegelmayer says she’s very pleased by Rhode Island’s new gun safety proposal.
“But I believe this is a decades-long fight. To me, I equate it to civil rights, drunk driving, tobacco – something that it’s just a long journey.”