What Ever Happened To Gun Control In Rhode Island?

Oct 21, 2013

In the aftermath of last year’s Newtown school shootings, Rhode Island politicians leaped on the gun control bandwagon. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay wonders what’s happened since.

Despite calls for more gun control, little has happened in the last year in the Ocean State.
Credit Don Boorman / RIPR

After last December’s horrific school massacre in Connecticut, political leaders from the White House to the Rhode Island State House vowed to crack down on gun violence. Gov. Lincoln Chafee, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed all advocated measures to advance gun control in our state.

At the top of the agenda: banning semi-automatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

And State General Treasurer Gina Raimondo said she would purge the state pension portfolio of companies that manufacture and deal firearms.

Well, none of that has happened. The General Assembly approved some window-dressing legislation that increased prison time for carrying a stolen firearm while committing a violent crime. Lawmakers also voted to make it a crime to possess a gun with an altered serial number.

In the end, lawmakers shuttled the tough issues, including whether people with serious mental health issues should be allowed to buy guns, to a study commission, that time-honored Smith Hill bill graveyard.

Remarkably, in Rhode Island, the gun lobby and their allies now seem to be stronger than they were before the Newtown murders. Not only was significant gun control legislation thwarted in the Assembly. Since then, the Tea Party faction of our state’s Republican Party raffled off a semi-automatic rifle as a fund-raiser. In rural Exeter, a group of gun enthusiasts has mounted a recall effort against members of the town council. The council’s sin: shifting control of granting gun permits from local officials to the attorney general’s office.

Meanwhile, the carnage continues. An insightful, yet profoundly sad series in the Providence Journal by Bill Malinowski and Amanda Milkovits showed the devastating financial and human costs of gun violence on the streets of our state. In Providence, 90 people have been shot so far this year, according to Teny Gross, director of the Institute for the Practice and Study of Non-Violence.

Then in September came the awful news that Aaron Alexis killed 12 people at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. Just five weeks before his murderous spree, he told Newport police that he was hearing voices in his head, feared people were coming after him and heard voices coming through the walls of the Newport Naval Station, where he was working as a contractor.

Alexis also told police that ``some sort of microwave machine’’ was sending vibrations through the ceiling of his hotel room in Newport. Newport police informed naval authorities, but nothing was done to detain Alexis, even though he had a security clearance.

Remarkably, it isn’t clear under Rhode Island law what could have been done because our state is one of the very few states that does not submit mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Last week, the State House gun safety commission created at the end of the Assembly session in July, finally met for just a second time. The front-page news out of this meeting was that Rhode Island has no mechanism for reporting mental illness to the federal database that is checked for almost all gun sales.

Yet, the lawmakers and others on the study commission would have had to be living on Mars to think this was news. Rhode Island Public Radio reporter Kristen Gourlay reported this in early January.

Other states responded with stronger measures after Newtown. Lawmakers in New York, Colorado and Connecticut approved tougher gun laws.

There may be some light at the end of Rhode Island’s tunnel vision. Raimondo is scheduled to present her plan to divest the pension from gun companies to the State Investment Commission on Wednesday. Raimondo’s spokeswoman says the process has been ``slower than the treasurer would like’’ but that it is moving forward.

The gun safety commission is finally meeting. Sane Republicans, including Cranston Mayor Alan Fung, the party’s leading candidate for governor, have denounced the GOP rifle raffle. And the General Assembly gets another chance at approving meaningful gun control when it convenes in January.

Yet the shootings and ambulance sirens still shatter the night in the seen-better-days neighborhoods of our cities. How many more bodies have to pile up in the emergency room at Rhode Island Hospital and the state morgue before something is done?

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his commentary and political analysis at the `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org