Will this be the year when the General Assembly strengthens RI's gun laws?

Feb 14, 2013

Guns in the custody of the Providence police.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

Law enforcement officials have tried without success for years to make Rhode Island’s gun laws more stringent. They say tougher laws would help to deter gun-related violence. Now, in the aftermath of the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, the question remains whether Rhode Island will beef up its gun laws. For starters, gun control supporters will have to overcome powerful opposition from the National Rifle Association.

In Washington, D.C., gun control supporters in Congress hope to reinstate a ban on assault weapons, limit magazines to 10 rounds, and expand background checks for gun sales. But even if those steps go forward, they wouldn’t impact the gun-related violence concentrated in the poor parts of cities like Providence. In the inner city, illegally obtained hand guns are the weapon of choice.

“You can get a gun and a pretty inexpensive gun, 100, 200 bucks, and you can get one pretty easily,” says Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare, as he drives around some of the dangerous parts of the city in an unmarked car.

“There are an abundant amount of guns on the street. And so it pushes the price down,” Pare says. “It’s all supply and demand.”

Reports of shots fired take place almost daily in Providence. Guns bought on the street wind up being used in other crimes, like a drive-by shooting that killed a bystander last year on Veazie Street in the Wanskuck section.

“He died right there on the street,” Pare says. “It was over a beef, a silly insignificant conflict.”

Some of the guns used in these types of crimes are stolen during housebreaks. Many more are bought in bulk legally in other states and then illegally resold in Providence. Pare says the supply of illegal guns is so great that police can’t control it: “We have to attack it by the manufacturing of guns. We can’t police our way out of this.”

And Pare says Rhode Island’s state laws aren’t strong enough to deter people from carrying illegal guns: “There’s a culture: I can get away with it – even if I get jammed up with a gun, I’m not going to face serious consequences.”

The Rhode Island lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, Darin Goens, says the problem isn’t that the state lacks strong enough laws.

“The problem in this country isn’t the firearm,” Goens says. “It’s a socioeconomic problem. And until we address that and some of the issues surrounding mental health, we’re really not getting at the crux of the problem.”

Concerns about how the shootings in Newtown could shape legislation in Rhode Island prompted Goens to make several trips to the Statehouse early in the legislative session.

“Just doing something for the sake of doing something isn’t going to solve the problem,” he says. “I’m confident in Rhode Island that once we have this discussion and folks are able to realize that we already have laws on the books that prevent this stuff – it’s just a matter of enforcing those laws – that there really won’t be an urge to pass much more legislation.”

In the past, Goens and the NRA haven’t had to worry too much about stronger gun laws in Rhode Island, because the General Assembly has lacked an appetite to make changes. It’s something Providence public safety commissioner Steven Pare knows well. When he was head of the state police, law enforcement was unable to convince the General Assembly to give local police chiefs’ discretion in issuing gun permits. Pare also points to failed attempts to close a loophole allowing juveniles to possess a gun without a permit.

“We haven’t been able to get any traction on that for five or six years,” he says, “and it’s been introduced every year.”

Pare and other critics blame the gun lobby for blocking attempts to strengthen Rhode Island’s gun laws.

In fact, an NRA political action committee has contributed more than $120,000 to Rhode Island lawmakers since 2002, according to a review of campaign finance records by Rhode Island Public Radio.

Lobbyist Darin Goens downplays the local influence of financial contributions by the four million-member NRA.

“I don’t think it has any bearing on what laws the state has, good or bad,” Goens says. “We support candidates who support our issue. It’s direct democracy in action. It’s our members saying, if a candidate is going to go to Providence and vote for our ideals, we’re going to support that person’s candidacy.”

House Speaker Gordon Fox is among the largest recipients of contributions from the NRA PAC. He’s received almost $4000 since 2002. Yet Fox says he doesn’t see the influence of the gun lobby. He says he hasn’t been personally lobbied by the NRA, and doesn’t think the financial contributions have influenced the legislature.

“I don’t think it plays a huge role,” Fox says. “You just have some people that truly believe in the Second Amendment and take a literal definition of that and they just believe it, and they have members here in Little Rhody who believe that.”

In the aftermath of Newtown, legislative leaders have been meeting with other state officials, the state police and the state police chiefs association. They’re discussing Rhode Island’s gun laws and mental health procedures. The goal is to introduce legislation in the coming weeks for consideration this session.

It includes increased background checks, stronger sentences for some gun-related crimes, and bans of certain weapons and high-capacity magazines. Also on the table is how Rhode Island can report individuals considered a danger to themselves or others into a national gun-related database.