Scott MacKay Commentary: A National Ranking RI Can Be Proud Of

Jan 8, 2016

Rhode Island is once again near the bottom in a national ranking of the 50 states.  Usually that’s a reason for concern, but in this case, RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says the bottom is a good place to be.

President Obama last week called for tougher enforcement of gun laws in the United States. A day before his tear-streaked event, the Violence Policy Center issued a ranking of state firearm death rates from 2014, the last year for which data is available.

The survey didn’t get much attention from the local political elite or the op-ed page chattering class.  There was nothing like the annual outburst of hand-wringing and kvetching when some conservative or business-orientated group, such as CNBC or the Chamber of Commerce , trot out a ranking that shows Rhode Island at the bottom of `business-friendly’ states.

This time, the data showed that Rhode Island has the second lowest gun rate death rate in the nation, lower than every state save Hawaii. The rankings revealed what common sense would tell anyone who cared to look – that states with weak gun control laws and high rates of gun ownership have the highest overall gun violence rates.

Alaska, with porous gun control laws, and a 56 percent gun ownership rate, and Louisiana, with weak gun laws and a gun owner rate of about 50 percent, have the highest gun death rates.  In Rhode Island, where just 16 percent of households contain guns and has stricter gun laws than most states, and Hawaii, with the nation’s lowest gun ownership rate at about 13 percent, have low gun death rates. Our neighboring New England states of Massachusetts and Connecticut, where gun laws were tightened after the tragic Newtown school shooting, also have among the nation’s lowest gun death rates and gun ownership metrics.

We know that the vast majority of gun owners use their weapons responsibly. We also know that while the gun lobby and hard-core Second Amendment activists hate Obama, the president’s new control effort is tepid. Yet it is probably the best he can do given a Republican-controlled Congress in thrall to the National Rifle Association and the campaign money its supporters provide.

Just about every week comes news of another horrible shooting, whether of innocent schoolchildren in Connecticut, college students in Virginia, workers in California, movie-goers in Colorado, members of a church congregation in South Carolina. The country seems numb to these televised scenes of death, as if this is the new normal. We seem as distracted as a child with too many Christmas presents.

In Washington, Obama seems to be the only political leader with a focus on stopping this carnage. Americans need to come to grips with the reality that he can’t do much alone.  If we listened only to gun enthusiasts and their lobbyists, one would think Obama is trying to take guns away from law-abiding citizens.

The most ludicrous example of this sentiment came last week from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination. His response to the president’s modest executive actions was a fund-raising web page depicting Obama in a helmet, looking like a Fascist thug, with a warning that stated,  ``Obama wants your guns.’’

Obama has been in the White House for seven years. Can anyone say with a straight face that he has ever proposed restricting gun ownership from citizens who obey the law? It isn’t as if the deer in Vermont or the elk in Montana are any safer since Obama entered the White House.  He hasn’t shut  down any shooting ranges. No  gun collectors or those who use firearms for personal safety have had their guns confiscated.

Closer to home, Rhode Islanders should be grateful that our state is among the safest. Yet this is clearly not a time to sit on our laurels, doing nothing.

Our gun laws may be better than other states, but we still have too  many murders and gun-related suicides.  Linda Finn, vice-president of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, points to some loopholes the General Assembly could close without trampling the rights of any legitimate gun owner.

The first would seem to be a no-brainer – stopping people convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault from buying weapons. Another would be to bar anyone but law-enforcement officials from carrying concealed weapons on school property.  A third would be to limit the ammunition capacity of an assault rifle to 10 rounds.

What’s needed in Rhode Island and across the nation is for a citizens group along the lines of Mothers Against Drunk Driving to lobby state-by –state for stronger gun restrictions. Washington may be oblivious to the need for better gun laws, but that doesn’t mean that we have to be.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org