Opening round on gun control debate
With the unveiling of a “9-bill gun safety package” Tuesday, supporters on both sides of the gun control issue are gearing up for a debate that is certain to dominate headlines for weeks
“They ain’t seen nothing yet,” Doreen Costa said in a phone interview yesterday. The North Kingstown State Representative previously organized a press conference to speak in opposition of a gun registration bill in March, to which more than 500 supporters appeared. She says the number of calls she has received in regards to the new package is even more astounding.
“Expect thousands, not hundreds,” she said about attendance at future hearings.
General Assembly leaders, Governor Lincoln Chafee, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin and law enforcement officials were all on hand to introduce the legislative package Tuesday afternoon.
“Somehow, we need to reconcile what our second amendment says with what is happening on our streets and in our schools,” said the governor.
From a Senate hearing room, Speaker of the House Gordon D. Fox and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed described the nine bills in more detail.
Two of the bills have already been presented to the General Assembly. One would make possession of a firearm by a minor illegal unless involved in a competition, hunting or accompanied by an adult (H5576, S0425). The other would make it illegal to manufacture, sell, purchase or possess a firearm with an altered, obliterated or removed identifying marker (H5286, S0455).
The remaining seven bills would:
Fox and Paiva Weed see the package as the first step in what they expect to be an ongoing dialogue.
“I can’t say all of the representatives present supported this legislation,” admitted Fox. “But they understand it is important.”
“We support, personally, this legislation, but we need to go through the committee process,” said Paiva-Weed. “I anticipate advocates on both sides will come forward and members of the Assembly will be able to strike a balance.”
“If this is just the beginning, what else is next?” asks Costa, who has not had the chance to read all nine bills in their entirety but has concerns.
One of her largest concerns is the Gun Control and Safe Firearms Act, which would ban semi-automatic assault weapons. Costa says the inclusion of small firearms in the ban would make 9mm pistols illegal.
“The legislatures need to educate themselves,” said Costa, who is a gun owner.
The proposed ban on assault weapons also stirred emotions in one audience member, who spoke out, asking Fox and Paiva Weed to explain why taking those weapons away from law-abiding citizens would have any effect on criminals using them. The leaders said those concerns were valid and could be addressed during public hearings in the near future.
“The strongest influence on this and any issue in this building are the constituents,” said Paiva Weed.
Costa is also concerned for the gun industry in Rhode Island if a ban is enacted.
“Gun shops could go out of business,” said Costa, explaining that three-quarters of the stock in most stores would be illegal under the ban.
With the Senate hearing room packed, Capitol police restricted access and a group lingered in the hallway looking to gain any information they could on the legislative package and what the governor and General Assembly leadership had to say. An even larger group collected around a television in the bell room off the rotunda, but as Aida Neary pointed out, "You really couldn't see much on the tiny screen."
Neary, of Newport, and Samantha Richard of Middletown are leaders of the Rhode Island Chapter of Moms Demand Action, a group seeking gun control that has mushroomed to 90,000 members in 87 chapters in 40 states since the Newtown, Conn. shootings.
"We figure this is common sense and we're asking for common sense," said Nan Heroux, a member of the group. She said Moms is not looking to ban guns and she maintained that the changes sought by the organization wouldn't change anything for responsible gun owners other than, perhaps, added paper work.
Richard was excited by the prospect of national background checks on those purchasing firearms. She also said Moms favors limiting the size of gun ammunition clips, adding that during the Newtown massacre, 11 children fled to safety when the shooter paused to reload.
Richard sees the role of the Rhode Island chapter as following the legislative package and advocacy. Both she and Neary said they would "push" to see that the bills get out of committee and on to the floors of the House and Senate for a vote. In its short history, the Rhode Island chapter has gained 180 members. The organization is also on Facebook and as of Tuesday had 302 likes.
"People are finding us," said Richard.
"We have decided, as moms, it's time to start saving all of our children," said Neary.
Back inside the hearing room, Fox and Paiva Weed were continuously questioned about the mental health issue and why more specific legislation was not included in the package.
“It is a sensitive issue,” said Fox. “We don’t want to put a scarlet letter on people.”
Fox explained creating the task force, which would include professionals from the mental health community, would ensure that legislation regarding those with mental health issues and guns would not deter individuals from seeking treatment.
Craig Stenning and Steven Costantino applauded the plan for a task force.
“It’s a very complicated issue,” said Costantino, secretary of health and human services. He used the example of an individual who may seek treatment for mild depression or anxiety and then need to undergo a background check. “Is that a diagnosis that really needs to be reported?”
“We try to do everything we can to support people getting treatment. We need to do a better job encouraging people to seek treatment,” said Stenning, director of the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals. “We have done a better job in the state of Rhode Island addressing the stigma attached to those with mental illness.”
Both men feel reversing that trend has the potential to lead to violence.
Costa was equally supportive of the proposed task force.
“I am 100 percent behind that,” she said. “I would love to be on that task force.”
Jake McGuigan, director of government relations and state affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation INC., came to the State House to find out how the legislation would affect the gun industry along with lobbyist Carolyn Murray.
“There is a lot of stuff that the industry can support,” said McGuigan, referring to penalties for criminals and the mental health task force. “The last thing the industry wants is to let guns get in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.”
He does, however, see an issue with the assault weapons ban and other bills that take guns away from law-abiding citizens.
“Banning rifles would not have prevented what happened in Newtown,” said McGuigan, who is actually from Newtown.
Costa says many of the bills need to be looked at closely, and she believes making the Attorney General’s office the licensing and permitting authority will be found unconstitutional since the state’s constitution says that is the responsibility of police.
“That is where education comes in,” she said, explaining that talks about background checks, purchasing limits and waiting periods are unnecessary because they are already in place for the state.
“I wouldn’t imagine all nine are going to pass,” said McGuigan of the package.
Paiva Weed is certainly hopeful.
“I hope by the end of this session we will be in front of you again, only this time in the State Room for a bill signing,” she said.
Also present at the event were Kilmartin and State Police Superintendent Col. Steven G. O’Donnell, who felt this package provided the tools law enforcement needs to prosecute criminals who use firearms illegally.
With reports from John Howell