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RI POLITICS

State leaders, advocates push R.I. General Assembly to prioritize gun safety

A package of legislation includes bills that would prohibit straw purchasing, prohibit open carry of loaded weapons, and more

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha speaks during a press conference to urge the General Assembly to pass gun safety legislation.
Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha speaks during a press conference to urge the General Assembly to pass gun safety legislation.Alexa Gagosz/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Less than a month ago, there were at least five shootings in Providence and Pawtucket in just four days.

One was the largest mass shooting in the state’s history. Another brought a community to its knees in mourning for the 19-year-old victim, Tatyana Francois, who was studying to be an ultrasound nurse and wanted to start her own hair product business. Another victim, 20-year-old Leonardo “Leo” Tavares, was killed in a drive-by shooting while he was sitting in his car.

The shootings rattled Rhode Island, and have inspired yet another push from advocates and state leaders to pass gun safety legislation.

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On Tuesday afternoon, Governor Dan McKee, Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, Attorney General Peter Neronha, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea joined lawmakers and leading gun violence prevention advocates to call on the General Assembly to pass “common-sense gun legislation” before the legislative session ends in a matter of weeks.

The package of legislation includes bills that would prohibit straw purchasing, track firearm purchases, limit magazine capacity to 10 rounds, regulate assault weapons, keep guns out of schools, prohibit open carry of loaded rifles and shotguns, and require the secure storage of firearms.

The package is supported by each of Rhode Island’s General Officers and the majority of the legislators in each chamber. And according to a 2020 poll by the Center for Research for Public Policy, about 71.5 percent of Rhode Islanders support limiting magazine capacity to 10 rounds and 70.5 percent favor banning assault weapons.

The poll also showed that less than 20 percent of Rhode Islanders own a firearm of any kind, and 7.9 percent of residents own an assault-type weapon.

“People have more access to firearms than ever before,” said Matos, who said there’s not “just one” solution to end gun violence. But instead, she said, the state needs to address the lack of affordable housing, the lack of opportunities, and to improve schools. She said the state can still embrace the Second Amendment so that Rhode Islanders can keep themselves and their families safe, while simultaneously passing “comprehensive, common-sense gun safety laws.”

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Gorbea, who recently announced that she would be running for governor in 2022, remembered her reaction to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where more than two dozen children and staff members were killed. She said she shielded her own children from the horrors, a privilege that she said many parents don’t have. Instead, she said, many Rhode Island families and children live with gun violence every day.

McKee said that while he was a basketball coach, there were minors that would frequently call him, saying that there might be firearms at high school parties, and would ask him for advice. He said he always responded with: “‘Keep yourselves safe.’”

“Working with these young kids underscored for me just how important mentoring is,” said McKee.

In May, after a weekend of shootings, there was a push for further financial support of the Nonviolence Institute, a nonprofit that has worked to lower the amount of violence in Providence over the last two decades. The organization’s street workers know what’s driving the spike in shootings and know the people involved, but have been running on a shoestring budget and manpower, according to executive director Cedric Huntley.

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Since then, Brown University, the Rhode Island Foundation, and the Partnership for Rhode Island donated $500,000 to the nonprofit. But Huntley recently told the Globe that he would need millions to address the issues that Rhode Island faces with gun violence.

McKee said that the state would provide resources to organizations like the Nonviolence Institute, but could not answer questions that asked for a specific figure.

When a Globe reporter asked how much he would like to be dedicated to the Institute, he said, “I don’t have a dollar amount.”

Alana O’Hare, the governor’s spokeswoman, later told the Globe in an email that McKee’s team is looking at the availability of federal funding from sources that include the American Rescue Plan, federal grants, and the state’s general revenue to “put towards programs like the Nonviolence Institute to stop gun violence and help us ensure every Rhode Islander is safe.” But she said that details on any program or the dollar amount that would be allocated has not yet been decided.

More than 135 people are wounded each year in Rhode Island from guns, according to EveryStat for Gun Safety, which pools data from federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to analyze the impact of gun violence throughout the country.

And on average, approximately 46 people die by guns in Rhode Island each year.

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Neronha said it’s important to make the public aware of the gun violence threat that Rhode Islanders face.

“Gun violence is a slow grind of violence,” said Neronha, who explained that recently, someone bought more than 80 guns for others. “These issues are not academic issues.”

Brenda Jacob, secretary and lobbyist for the Rhode Island Rifle and Revolver Association, attended the press conference and said she was “dumbfounded” by what she said was “misinformation.”

“We don’t get our facts from the National Rifle Association. We get our facts by doing public records requests,” said Jacob, who is also the president of the Federated Rhode Island Sportsmen’s Club and president of the Ocean State Junior Rifle Association. She said it was not true that the majority of Rhode Islanders want this legislative package to pass. “We know we have 60,000 new gun owners. Do you think that they are going to want to turn our guns in?”

She said she thinks children should be trained how to use firearms.

“It’s just like (with) bullying,” she said. “You have to educate kids on the good and the bad. Just like drunk driving. You have to be proactive.”

Magaziner, who is expected to run for governor in 2022, said that no gun safety legislation has been historically approved unless the gun industry gave it “the seal of approval.” Previously a teacher, he said one of his former students was killed by guns at the age of 19.

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“We need to have the courage to say that we are going to join Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and all the other states” that have approved gun safety legislation, said Magaziner. “They had the courage to protect their people. Why don’t we?”


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.