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Assault weapons ban fails despite R.I. leaders’ support

Newtown, Conn., Police Chief Michael Kehoe backed an assault weapons ban on May 1 at a Providence hearing.

Stephen Senne/Associated Press

Newtown, Conn., Police Chief Michael Kehoe backed an assault weapons ban on May 1 at a Providence hearing.

PROVIDENCE — After the deadly school massacre in Newtown, Conn., top Rhode Island leaders gathered to recommend ways to crack down on gun violence. Topping the list were proposals to ban semiautomatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

The idea came from Governor Lincoln Chafee, House Speaker Gordon Fox, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, and Attorney General Peter Kilmartin and had the backing of the mayors of Providence, Pawtucket, and Central Falls.

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Yet the gun control legislation was left to languish when lawmakers adjourned their 2013 session Wednesday. Other proposals to change the way handgun permits are awarded or to require gun owners to pay a $100-per-gun registration fee also failed after huge protest rallies at the State House.

Instead, lawmakers passed legislation that would increase jail time for carrying a stolen firearm while committing a violent crime. They also voted to make it illegal to possess a gun with a destroyed serial number.

The General Assembly also voted to create a task force to study adding mental health records to the information used in firearm background checks. Rhode Island currently doesn’t share mental health information with the federal background check system.

For lawmakers who wanted to see the state take stronger steps to curb gun violence, it was a lost opportunity. Lawmakers in Colorado, New York, and Connecticut enacted tougher gun laws following the mass shooting last year at a suburban Denver movie theater and the massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

After the Connecticut rampage in December, gun control supporters in Rhode Island held rallies at the State House to call on lawmakers to enact the assault weapons ban. The Newtown police chief traveled to the State House to testify in support. But the momentum quickly dissipated.

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‘‘I was deeply disappointed,’’ said state Representative Teresa Tanzi, a South Kingstown Democrat. ‘‘I know there’s more that can be done. But the sad truth is tragedy happens, people are motivated, but people’s lives go on.’’

In response to the proposals, gun rights supporters held rallies of their own that attracted thousands to the State House to protest what they said were politically motivated attempts to take away their Second Amendment rights. Many lawmakers agreed.

The bills that did pass attracted support from both sides and were pushed through nearly unanimously. Representative Mike Chippendale, a Foster Republican who was one of the leading opponents of the proposed ban on assault weapons, said he was pleased both sides were able to work together to create proposals that didn’t infringe on gun owners’ rights. He said the more ambitious gun control proposals wouldn’t have stopped gun crime or prevented another massacre.

He singled out the legislation to study mental health records and background checks as an example of legislation that could one day prevent a shooting rampage like the one in Newtown.

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