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Rhode Island governor urges support on gun laws

“Too many lives have been tragically cut short by senseless gun violence across our nation – we cannot allow this to continue,” McKee said.

Gun control advocates and gun rights supporters attend a rally led by student activists at Rhode Island's Statehouse on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in Providence, R.I. They gathered to call for gun reform and mark Friday's two-year anniversary of the deadly mass shooting at Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. The rally was held immediately after the state's Democratic governor and attorney general held an event to push state lawmakers to pass a group of bills they think would help curb gun violence.Jennifer McDermott/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — The day after an 18-year-old man killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee called on the General Assembly to pass bills to ban high-capacity magazines and assault rifles.

“Too many lives have been tragically cut short by senseless gun violence across our nation – we cannot allow this to continue,” McKee said in a statement. “We need action now, here in Rhode Island and in our nation’s capital.”

National Education Association Rhode Island President Lawrence E. Purtill and Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals President Frank Flynn also urged Rhode Island’s elected leaders to pass the legislation.


“To Rhode Island’s elected officials, and those who wish to become lawmakers in November, we ask what is your plan to keep our schoolchildren safe?” they said in a joint statement Wednesday afternoon. “We represent Rhode Islanders who live and breathe this question every day. Our classroom teachers who must decide between an open door for better air circulation to protect from a dangerous virus or a closed door to protect from a gunman in the hallway.”

They called on elected officials to participate in an active shooter drill in their local schools, so they understand what it’s like.

“Tell us your plan to keep schoolchildren safe,” they said. “These are reasonable requests. What is unreasonable is continuing to do nothing.”

One bill would make it a felony to possess any semi-automatic firearm magazine capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition, with limited exceptions for firearms dealers, law enforcement and military.

A second bill would ban “assault weapons,” which are defined as either semi-automatic shotguns with a fixed magazine capacity exceeding six rounds or capable of accepting a detachable magazine and pistol grip, or folding stock, or semi-automatic rifles with a fixed magazine capacity exceeding 10 rounds, or is able to accept a detachable magazine and has a folding or telescoping stock, or a pistol grip, or bayonet mount, or flash suppressor, or grenade launcher.


Under the bill, those who possess the weapons when the law is passed would be grandfathered in, subject to registration of their firearms.

Lead sponsor state Representative Justine Caldwell submitted both bills in the House on behalf of the governor and lieutenant governor, the attorney general’s office, secretary of state, and general treasurer. Caldwell had held the bills over from last year’s session, so they do not need new hearings this year. Both were introduced in January and referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

Senator Cynthia Coyne, chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is sponsoring the legislation on limiting magazine rounds and is a co-sponsor with Senator Josh Miller on legislation banning assault weapons; both bills were heard at the Judiciary Committee and held for further study in March.

The National Rifle Association is lobbying against both bills. Both the NRA and the Rhode Island Second Amendment Coalition are also lobbying against bills to require background checks for ammunition purchases and make it a felony to leave a gun unsecured that leads to the injury or death of a child. Both bills have been held for further study since they were heard by the House Judiciary Committee in March.

Although Rhode Island has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation, there are exceptions.


A loophole in state law allows open carry of loaded rifles in public. State Representative Leonela Felix and Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey are sponsoring legislation to ban that practice, except for during hunting, but the bills have been sitting in the House and Senate judiciary committees since March.

Rhode Island also allows 18-year-olds to purchase long guns and ammunition; buyers have to be at least 21 to purchase a handgun. State Representative Teresa Tanzi and Senator Maryellen Goodwin have both sponsored legislation to raise the age to 21 for all firearms and ammunition purchases. Gun-rights supporters oppose the bills, which have been held since they were heard in the judiciary committees in March.

Larry Berman, spokesman for House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, said Wednesday morning that the “bills are still under consideration.”

A spokesman for Senate President Dominick Ruggerio also said Wednesday that firearms bills are under consideration.

Ruggerio pointed to firearm safety legislation that the Senate supported in the past, “including the red flag law to remove guns from individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others, removal of firearms from domestic abusers, mental health reporting to NICS for background checks, and the prohibition of ghost guns, 3D guns, and bump stocks.”

Ruggerio had also sponsored legislation last year to ban firearms from school grounds, which was passed by the General Assembly and signed by McKee. The Harold M. Metts School Safety Act prohibits anyone except law enforcement and security officers from carrying firearms on school property, and also banned unloaded firearms in locked containers or a locked rack in a motor vehicle.


McKee also signed a law banning straw purchases of firearms.

Although neither of the bills to ban assault weapons nor magazines holding more than 10 rounds have advanced -- a perennial issue -- McKee said it was “time for the General Assembly to act immediately and pass those common-sense gun safety bills and send them to my desk for signature – it is time.”

Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who is running a tight race for governor against McKee, said that the General Assembly should fast-track the legislation to ban high-capacity magazines and assault weapons.

“Citizens should not be able to purchase the same guns that are used in war-zones. We must ensure that our schools and social programs have the funding they need to address the gaps in mental health care that are impacting Rhode Island families,” Gorbea said in a statement. “Finally, we need to work with law enforcement to strengthen and expand gun buyback programs to get more guns off the street.”

If elected, Gorbea said, she would bring together gun reform advocates and gun sellers, gun owners, law enforcement, school officials and students, faith leaders, and mental health professionals, along with elected officials, to address gun violence.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Helena Buonanno Foulkes also said she supports legislation to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and called on McKee to take action. ”He should bring together legislative leaders TODAY and demand action on gun reform,” Foulkes said in a statement. “There is no excuse for the fact that Rhode Island has still not banned assault weapons and high capacity magazines. Getting this done requires real leadership, not lip service.”


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