I’m sure that most Rhode Island lawmakers can walk and chew gum at the same time, but you’d have to get me pretty high before I’d believe there’s any chance that they’ll legalize cannabis and pass anything remotely meaningful on gun safety in the same year.
That was my thinking before 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, were killed Tuesday by an 18-year-old who legally purchased the AR-15 he used to ruin the lives of so many.
And somehow, as implausible as it sounds, it’s still my thinking now.
Legal weed, which was approved by the General Assembly Tuesday and quickly signed into law by Governor Dan McKee on Wednesday, and gun control have absolutely nothing in common, except that they have broad (and growing) support among most Rhode Islanders.
For too many years, reasonable gun safety bills like bans on high-capacity magazines and assault rifles have been stuck in some of the same committees that just approved cannabis. They aren’t guaranteed to stop every madman from shooting up a school, but they would certainly make it more difficult to inflict the kind of carnage we just saw in Texas.
But public sentiment is almost never enough to force the hand of the conservative Senate leadership or a House leadership team that doesn’t love rocking the boat. Instead, they carefully choose the issues they’ll “give” to progressives every year, but they act like parents on Halloween trying to limit the amount of candy they’ll let their kids ingest.
Candy. That’s what issues like gun safety and women’s reproductive rights and equality and the environment, and yes, cannabis, are to these people.
It’s not about doing what’s right. It’s about giving rank-and-file lawmakers enough so they stop plotting to overthrow Senate President Dominick Ruggerio or House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi. Or doing just enough to fend off a Democratic primary opponent from the left.
In reality, most of us on the sidelines watching incremental progress happen on any issue aren’t being cynical enough. We tell ourselves that a gun bill isn’t being passed because the NRA loves Ruggerio or maybe there are just a bunch of gun nuts on Smith Hill.
But that’s not true. The gun lobby isn’t powerful enough to unseat a legislative leader in Rhode Island, and there aren’t many high-ranking representatives or senators who have the 2nd Amendment tattooed on their lower backs.
They just know that holding some candy back for next year is a great way to stay in power.
By passing these bills one year at time – gay marriage almost a decade ago, the Reproductive Privacy Act in 2019, the Act on Climate bill last year, and cannabis this year – they’re doing just enough to survive.
The General Assembly has acted on guns in recent years, approving an important Red Flag law that has taken guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous individuals. They also passed a bill last year to ban “straw purchases” of firearms.
Those were a good start. But it wasn’t enough.
There are moments where it’s much smarter for lawmakers to take a deep breath and think through their next actions, and there are moments when you have to meet the moment and act. Ban high-capacity magazines and assault weapons. And while I’m not sold on the idea that every school in Rhode Island needs a police officer, it’s reasonable to debate the merits of that bill, too.
It’s nice that we have finally legalized cannabis. Now get something meaningful done on guns.
It’s time for the General Assembly to show that it can walk and chew gum at the same time.