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Three R.I. gun bills advance while another is withdrawn in protest

Assembly plans to vote on ban on “straw purchases” and guns in schools, but advocates say another gun bill was “gutted”

A pro-second-amendment supporter outside of the Rhode Island State Capitol, where bills that would either expand gun rights or seek to control firearms were debated on March 13, 2021.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — In close committee votes Monday, the Rhode Island House and Senate advanced bills that would outlaw “straw purchases” of guns and prohibit firearms on school grounds, but a legislator withdrew another gun bill after it was “gutted.”

House and Senate leaders had reached agreement on four gun bills that appeared to be headed to a final vote in the waning days of this year’s legislative session, including a bill that would require enhanced reporting by the attorney general on gun crimes.

But Representative Justine A. Caldwell withdrew a bill, which would have required the locked storage of guns not in use, after it was changed to simply provide tax credits for gun safes.

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“I’m really disappointed for several reasons,” she told the Globe. “As you could see, (the amended bill) bore no relation to the intent and words of the original bill. It just absolutely did not have an impact on our attempt to reduce gun accidents and suicides, like the original bill.”

Caldwell, an East Greenwich Democrat, was even more pointed on Twitter about the outcome of gun bill negotiations.

“The reality is that this year we have unprecedented support in the chambers and in our state, but without consulting with me or @gaylegoldin, the sponsor in the Senate, three rich white guys decided on a slate of gun bills that gave as much to the NRA as it did to their majority,” she tweeted over the weekend.

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, issued a joint statement Monday, defending their agreement to proceed on the four gun bills.

“We have been consulting throughout the session with our members, Governor McKee, and Attorney General Neronha, and both of our judiciary committees heard many hours of public testimony and reviewed thousands of emails submitted to the committees,” the legislative leaders said. “The straw purchase ban is one of the attorney general’s highest priorities, and all four bills will be impactful.”

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Legislative leaders can take part in any committee votes by virtue of their office, and that dynamic proved decisive Monday.

For example, the House Judiciary Committee voted 9-8 for the straw purchaser bill and the guns-in-schools bill, with Shekarchi and House Majority Leader Christopher J. Blazejewski voted in favor and House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi voting against.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-5 for the guns-in-school bill, with Ruggerio, Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, and Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin in favor and Senate Minority Leader Dennis L. Algiere and Senate Minority Whip Jessica de la Cruz voting against. The committee voted 8-4 for the straw purchaser bill, with Algiere joining in support.

The close votes were reflected in the committee debates.

For example, House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian, an East Providence Democrat, introduced legislation to prohibit the possession of firearms on school grounds except for peace officers, retired law enforcement officers, private security, and unloaded firearms in locked containers or racks on motor vehicles.

But Representative Arthur J. Corvese, a North Providence Democrat, voted against the bill, saying, “This bill, in my opinion, is a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist.”

The bill would apply to people with carry permits who have gone through a “laborious vetting process” and are “law-abiding citizens,” Corvese said. “This doesn’t apply to criminals or criminality,” he said. “It has no effect on individuals who intend to do mischief.”

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Representative Edith H. Ajello, a Providence Democrat, spoke in support of the bill.

“I would remind my colleagues that local police, the police chiefs association, has asked us to pass this,” she said. “They don’t want people with concealed weapons in the schools who have not trained with the local police and don’t know what the protocols are should there be an emergency.”

Ajello said someone with a concealed weapon “could end up being a danger to themselves or others if there were to be an active shooter situation.”

Ruggerio, who has had an “A” rating from the NRA, had made the school bills “a priority for the Senate” during this legislative session. The bill is named for former Senator Harold M. Metts, a Providence Democrat who had championed the legislation in the past but lost a Democratic primary in September.

In 2018, former Governor Gina M. Raimondo took executive action to ban guns on school grounds, but she, too, had said that codifying that ban in law should be a top priority this year.

Gun control advocates had expected to receive a warmer reception in the House than they did during the tenure of Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, a Democrat who had an “A” rating from the NRA and who lost his Cranston district seat in the November elections. Shekarchi, who took over in January, has had a “D” rating from the NRA.

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Linda D. Finn, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, said the coalition has backed the ban on guns in schools for years, and the straw purchase legislation will make a difference.

“Those two are impactful bills,” she said. “They will help keep our schools safer and allow law enforcement to know who is buying large quantities of guns.”

But Finn said she was disappointed that Rhode Island has not banned high-capacity magazines, as Massachusetts and Connecticut have done. “It’s really disappointing,” she said. “That’s the one bill that would really have a huge impact in the state.”

Finn said she also was disappointed that “they took the safe storage bill and gutted it,” and instead attempted to “give wealthy gun owners a tax credit to buy a gun safe.”

She said the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence was essentially neutral about a bill, sponsored by Representative Stephen M. Casey, a Woonsocket Democrat, that would require the attorney general to issue a report on the total number of firearm charges brought and disposed of in state courts.

“On one hand, it’s good to have more data,” Finn said. “But on the other hand, I think the premise that the attorney general is not prosecuting enough gun crimes is not really true.”

The three gun bills are expected to come to the House and Senate floors on Wednesday.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.