SMITH HILL – The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony from hundreds of Rhode Islanders on a package of nearly two dozen gun bills. The marathon of a meeting went late into the night last week, drawing out fierce debate from individuals on both sides of the gun control issue.
Like the testimony that was heard that evening, the bills being proposed by state representatives also varied widely in political options.
While some legislation looked to limit access to firearms, like requiring purchases to release records relating to addiction, alcoholism and mental health illness over the past five years, or banning the sale of assault weapons, others are seeking more freedoms to conceal carry in Rhode Island.
Rep. Justine Caldwell (Dist. 30 – East Greenwich, West Greenwich) has sponsored a number of the measures she calls “common-sense bills to prevent gun violence,” like limiting high capacity magazines to 10 rounds. Such bills, she argues, could prevent a tragedy like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting from happening here.
“While I wish with all my heart this was a far-fetched, hypothetical story that I was using to justify my introduction of these bills, it is not,” Caldwell said. “It’s the story of what actually happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut only two hours away from here.”
The arguments Caldwell has heard against a number of the gun control bills on the table this year have not swayed her position, as she highlighted many recent mass shoots that were perpetrated by those who legally purchased their weapons.
“I’ve heard that since we’ve been lucky enough to not have a mass shooting in Rhode Island yet, that we don’t need to do anything,” Caldwell continued. “But that is simply a crazy argument – that when we have the ability to prevent harm, we should wait until people die to take action.”
The opponents to these measures are in the minority, she claims, including those most strongly opposed to these bills as part of “a movement that glorifies violence and the use of force as a means of exercising political power.” The mother of two young children said many of the emails she’s received have made threats against her and her family.
“Rhode Islanders should not have to feel afraid of when the first mass shooting will happen here, and they certainly should not stand by believing that nothing can be done,” Caldwell said. “Because something can be done.”
While House Minority Leader Blake Filippi (Dist. 36 – Charlestown, New Shoreham, South Kingstown, Westerly) does not support legislation to limit high capacity magazine size, he apologized to Caldwell for the inappropriate emails she’s received, stating that such emails and comments “should never happen no matter what side of an issue you’re on.”
The vast majority of emails Filippi has received from individuals on both sides of the issue, however, have been respectful. He expressed concerns to Caldwell about clouding the issue of the debate “with a few jerks out there who would say something inappropriate to you.”
“They are people who have deeply held philosophical beliefs about their right to maintain and keep firearms,” Filippi said. “Those people shouldn’t be improperly painted by a very small minority of people out there who act in a way I think we all find objectionable.”
Lawful Americans who own firearms shouldn’t be lumped into that category, he said, especially considering that most gun crimes in this state involve handguns.
“The vast majority of gun crimes in the state, and let’s note that we have the fourth-lowest gun crime rate in the United States, the vast majority of firearms used in crimes are handguns that don’t even take 10 rounds,” Filippi said.
The House Minority Leader also commented on the issues he found with some supporters for limiting gun access, who he’s also heard call the former president fascist.
“I’ve heard that from some colleagues in this building, but they support removing people’s Second Amendment rights,” Filippi said. “I just don’t think those are positions you can reconcile.”
“I just have to put it out there because I’m hearing many contradictory statements from people who are supporting these bills, and I want some consistency when we’re dealing with constitutional rights,” he added.
The House Judiciary Committee heard from hundreds of Rhode Islanders who waited in long phone lines for their minute and 15 seconds to testify. Due to the pandemic, public participation that usually happens in the Statehouse was forced to take place virtually.
The Rhode Island Republican Party and the Rhode Island Firearm Owners’ League, along with other groups, urged members to participate and have their voices heard last week. Some of the bills that looked to expand gun rights in Rhode Island include creating an appeal for applicants denied a concealed firearms permit, permitting Rhode Island residents, 21 years of age or older to carry a concealed handgun without a permit, and allowing reciprocal concealed carry permits from out of state to be valid in Rhode Island.
The Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence expressed broad support of “gun safety legislation.”
“While the gun lobby likes to say that these laws would only take away rights from ‘law-abiding citizens,’ the fact is that increasing the accountability of gun owners to safely store their firearms, enforcing stricter rules to reduce straw purchasers, and decreasing the number of highly-lethal firearms enhances the safety of all Rhode Islanders,” the organization said in a statement.