Saturday marked one year since the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., acknowledged in Warwick by the ringing of the bells at City Hall on the anniversary. The loss of 20 children and 6 adults on that day became a call to action, with leaders across the country, including mayors, governors, members of Congress and President Barack Obama, speaking out about the need for changes to federal and state gun laws to prevent events like Sandy Hook, Aurora, Virginia Tech and Columbine from happening again.
So 365 days later, what has changed?
For the past year, the conversation about changing federal and state laws regarding firearms has essentially remained just that, a conversation.
On the national stage, Rhode Island Congressmen Jim Langevin and David Cicilline are still calling for stronger background checks, prompted most recently by a Federal Bureau of Investigation report that showed how the states are doing submitting health records of individuals barred from purchasing handguns to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
The report, which was released by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, revealed Rhode Island was ranked with the lowest performing states, having submitted less than 100 mental health records since the database was created 20 years ago through the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.
“As a founding member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, I strongly believe that commonsense measures, like improving the NICS database, are the best methods to strengthen gun violence prevention in Rhode Island and around the country,” said Cicilline, who along with Langevin is a member of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force.
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act requires individuals to pass a background check through NICS before purchasing any firearm from federally licensed dealers. According to a press release from the Congressmen, the FBI report shows that as of May 2013, the NICS was missing hundreds of thousands of state and federal records.
“This is an opportunity to educate ourselves on the deficiencies that exist within the NICS and strengthen gun violence prevention efforts in our state. It is critical that we take meaningful action to fill these information gaps and create a more effective background check process,” said Langevin. “I strongly believe that Rhode Island can strengthen its reporting requirements in a manner that respects the balance of privacy and public safety.”
Earlier this year, the Congressmen also co-sponsored the Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act (HR-1565), which was sent to committee in April. The bipartisan bill requires all commercial firearms sales to take part in the background check system in an attempt to prevent criminals or the mentally ill from finding loopholes in the system.
On the state level, Speaker of the House Gordon Fox, Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, Governor Lincoln Chafee, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin and law enforcement officials unveiled a nine-bill package regarding gun safety back in April. Three of those bills were passed and signed into law, making it unlawful to receive, transport or possess any firearms with altered or obliterated ID numbers and increasing the penalties for committing a violent crime with a stolen firearm.
The bill establishing a Behavioral Health and Firearms Safety Task force to review and suggest recommendations for statutes regarding mental health and firearms was also passed.
Representative Deb Ruggiero (D- Jamestown, Middletown) was the lead sponsor of the legislation and now heads up the task force.
“There have been so many tragedies,” said Ruggiero, adding that Sandy Hook served as a wake-up call. She explained that the 20-member task force, which includes mental health professionals, gun owners, police, representatives from the Attorney General’s office and others, is on a “fast track” looking to make their recommendations by February and have resulting legislation passed and signed before the end of the 2014 session in June.
“Rhode Island is one of 10 states, Massachusetts is another, that does not submit mental health records to NICS. We do report criminal records,” said Ruggiero, explaining that the task force is studying how other states approach reporting to NICS, as well as how to provide relief through a disqualifiers board for those denied by NICS.
“The task force is looking at the person, not the weapon,” added Ruggiero.
The group has been meeting twice a month since September and all meetings are open to the public (the next hearing is on Thursday at 3 p.m. at the State House). The major question facing the task force has been how to draft legislation that balances protecting the public while still providing individuals with their privacy.
“It is very complicated. A mental health diagnosis is not an identifier that a person is dangerous,” said Ruggiero, adding that Rhode Island is ranked eighth in the nation in terms of strict gun control laws, even requiring background checks at gun shows. “It’s more than tightening gun control.”
With over 26 mass shooting incidents in recent history, Ruggiero said awareness about this issue has grown and the committee is in agreement that no one wants weapons in the hands of people who wish to cause harm.
Ruggiero also pointed out that if an individual is put into the NICS, the only information released is a name, gender and date of birth; no reason is given or diagnosis provided.
“If you go to apply for a gun license and if you have been reported to NICS, they don’t say why. It just says you’ve been denied,” she explained.
Representative Joseph McNamara (D-Warwick) was one of the co-sponsors on the legislation that established the task force. Although he is not a member of the task force, McNamara said he does speak with members of the group and believes they will present good legislation in the upcoming session to address the issue of mental health and gun safety.
“The key is drafting legislation that is developing a balance between our mental health privacy statutes and the right to protect the public,” said McNamara in a phone interview last week. “I believe legislation will be presented that will strike that balance.”
McNamara was also responsible for legislation that made changes to school safety following the events in Newtown. The legislation, which was not part of the nine-bill gun safety package, updated laws already on the books to require all school systems to perform annual safety assessments, school committees to review safety plans annually and any specifics of school safety procedures to be removed from public record. “The world has changed in terms of our ability to communicate,” explained McNamara. “It has also changed in the fact that individuals who wish to cause harm now have new tools available to them.”
McNamara explained that he believes specifics of the safety plans should be removed from public record to ensure schools are secure and individuals who wish to cause harm in schools will not have access to the details of the plans through the Internet.
When asked why he believed laws to address school safety were passed while those addressing guns had such trouble, McNamara explained that the timing was right for his legislation.
“I think it certainly has been heightened awareness since the Newtown tragedy,” said McNamara, adding that the original laws he amended were a decade old. It was time for them to be updated.
Cranston Senator Joshua Miller (D) co-sponsored two bills regarding gun safety, one to establish an assault rifle ban in the state and another to make a number of changes to the sale and possession of weapons. Both were held for further study.
In regards to the assault weapons ban, Miller believes this is still an important issue to look at because of the frequency of gun violence in the world today.
“I think it’s not only important based on the incidents over the past year, but it’s important also because of the gun violence that happens every day,” said Miller, pointing out that over 900 people have died in gun violence incidents since Newtown, including incidents of family violence and gun-inflicted suicide. “It’s something that happens every day across the country.”
Miller’s portion of the gun sales legislation was to stop the sale of guns to those under the age of 18.
“A lot of the urban violence is younger people; that was really addressed to a specific group,” explained Miller.
The senator believes that for bills such as his to gain momentum in the next session, those in the community who support them need to make their voices heard because those who want change don’t get the same attention as those who don’t.
“Every time someone respectful conducts a poll on this issue, this legislation, there is usually a significant number that support it, but that majority is outmaneuvered,” said Miller.
The senator encourages those in support of these bills be “better organized, more vocal and make their desires known to the media and to state legislators.”
Looking to the future, all of the legislators believe that change is still necessary and possible.
McNamara said he is still “horrified” by the access to weapons, especially the number of illegal weapons out in the world.
“I think we need to be looking at and making sure current statutes are enforceable,” said McNamara, adding that increasing education and outreach in the communities where gun violence is high could prove successful, citing the work of the Providence Police Department in confiscating stolen weapons this past year.