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RI POLITICS

As mass shootings roil the country, Rhode Island debates gun safety laws — again

The proposed legislation includes banning assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, prohibiting straw purchases, allowing people to carry handguns without a permit, and allowing people with permits in other states to also carry in Rhode Island.

In West Warwick, a Glock pistol on display at Heritage Gun & Coin.
In West Warwick, a Glock pistol on display at Heritage Gun & Coin.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — They each had their own studies, their own interpretations of data, their own passionate opinions on what, if anything, could be done to prevent gun violence.

But what none of the hundreds of politicians, public officials, and advocates had during the hours of testimony given Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee was anything they could agree on.

Gun advocates said the criminals were the problem, not the firearms, and any attempt to pass legislation to restrict access to firearms was an infringement on the Second Amendment. Gun-safety supporters talked about the mass shootings across the country, suicides, homicides, and the need to prevent them from happening in Rhode Island.

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In many ways, the scene was the same when people testified on similar gun legislation before the House Judiciary Committee a little over three weeks ago.

But since the House hearing on March 19, there have been 43 mass shootings across the United States, killing 57 people, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Wakefield resident Jean Bowen, a volunteer with Safer Communities for Justice, wrote to the committee that her 80-year-old cousin had been buying groceries at the King Soopers in Boulder, Colo., and fled when a gunman opened fire there, killing 10 people.

On Monday, one man was killed and a police officer injured in a school shooting in Tennessee. In Providence, meanwhile, police were investigating the homicide of a young man found shot to death in a car, the fourth homicide in the city this year.

None of the shootings seem to have changed the gun debate locally. Three hundred people from all over the state were signed up to testify before the Senate, and the committee received between 1,500 to 2,000 e-mails with written testimony. These bills were also held for further study.

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As Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza testified in favor of several gun-safety bills, committee member Senator Gordon Rogers, a Republican from rural Foster, questioned whether Providence’s gun violence was Rhode Island’s problem.

“Is it a state problem, or is it a community problem, or specific area problem?” Rogers asked.

“The majority of people killed by guns are suicide, it’s not just a question of violence or inner city violence. It’s just deadly,” Elorza said.

The proposed gun-safety legislation included banning assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, barring open carry of long guns except while hunting, prohibiting straw purchases, and making it a felony not to safely store guns.

Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio is also backing a bill to ban carrying concealed guns on school grounds, though he has not said whether he will support the rest of the gun legislation.

The pro-gun legislation included allowing people to carry handguns without a permit, allowing people with permits in other states to also carry in Rhode Island, and setting up a school security committee to develop a five-year plan to protect all K-12 schools from shooters — with bullet-resistant glass, surveillance cameras, armed school security, and breach-proof doors.

Rogers also backs legislation to allow noise suppressors on rifles and shotguns, because he said his neighbors call the police when they hear him shooting in his backyard. During the remote hearing, he displayed an empty gun magazine to demonstrate why he thought that a bill limiting magazine capacity would make all guns illegal.

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Some questioned the statistics of gun violence and whether it was a problem in Rhode Island. Republican Senator Jessica de la Cruz of North Smithfield, who was skeptical of information from the deputy attorney general and others supporting gun control, is sponsoring a bill to require the attorney general to produce an annual report of all gun arrests and charges, dispositions in cases, and the firearms used in crimes.

While all who supported gun rights testified that they owned guns, some gun owners also testified in support of several gun-safety bills, including banning assault rifles and magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, and banning guns in schools. They included Boris Bally, the artist who created the 12-foot “Gun Totem” sculpture of guns that stands across from the Licht Judicial Complex.

The Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals said its members supported the bill to ban concealed guns in schools: “We cannot fathom any situation where it would be acceptable or advisable for a visitor to conceal a firearm while in a school building or on school grounds.”

Frank Saccoccio, who as head of the Rhode Island 2nd Amendment Coalition helped write the pro-gun bills, said that he was carrying his gun in church when he stopped a man with a knife.He said the incident wasn’t reported to the police, but he had saved the priest from harm.

“Ask yourself, if you could put someone like me at Sandy Hook to take out Adam Lanza, you have to say yes,” Saccoccio said, referring to the 2012 massacre of children and school staff in Newtown, Conn.

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Gun-safety supporters testified for a bill requiring gun owners to safely store their firearms, some telling devastating stories or writing about suicides of their loved ones.

“During her moment of heartache and suffering, she was able to gain access to her partner’s gun, which was habitually stored in an easily accessible location and never locked up,” David dosReis, of Cranston, wrote about the death of his sister, Allyson, last summer. “I believe that if my sister had not been able to access this loaded gun during her moment of weakness, she might still be alive today.”

But the gun-rights advocates on the committee and during testimony opposed requirements for gun locks or storage, because they wanted to have their guns available in an emergency.

Smithfield Democrat Stephen Archambault, committee vice chairman, said the bill wouldn’t stop suicides. “There are two types who talk about suicide, they are crying our for attention and need more help, and those who are really going to do it,” he said. “To take that type of analysis and superimpose on lawful gun owners and say they are felons because they don’t have locks on guns — we shouldn’t be superimposing our paternalistic views on society.”

As the night wore on, the debate became testy, even as people acknowledged that each side was entrenched in its views.

“No place is off-limits. No place is immune,” said deputy attorney general Adi Goldstein, urging the committee to pass the gun-safety bills.

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Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.