PROVIDENCE — In a powerful push prompted by the school shooting in Texas and the racist shooting in Buffalo, top state officials, legislators, and union leaders stood on the State House steps on Tuesday, calling for Rhode Island to ban assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Hours earlier, the state’s two top legislative leaders — House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio — issued a joint statement, saying, “We are committed to passing meaningful gun reform legislation this session.”
But it was Diana Garlington, a Providence resident whose 21-year-old daughter was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2011, who delivered some of the day’s most poignant statements.
“When our children die, we die too,” she said. “Enough is enough.”
Garlington, a member of Moms Demand Action and the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, joined other advocates in calling for the General Assembly to pass five gun bills that would limit magazine capacity to 10 rounds, ban assault-style weapons, prohibit the open carry of long guns in public, raise the age from 18 to 21 to buy long guns and ammunition, and strengthen safe firearm storage laws.
“It’s time for the General Assembly, our senators, and all who have authority to stand up and bring these bills for a vote,” she said. “We can no longer sit back and wait for these laws to be passed. Nineteen children were slaughtered (in Texas). We are not going to wait for another 19.”
People should not have to live in fear, Garlington said.
“We should not be afraid to go to a grocery store. We should not be afraid to send our children to school,” she said. “This could happen anywhere. This can happen in our own backyard.”
Governor Daniel J. McKee, a Democrat, said he has regular lunches with Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, and Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, and he recently asked them what he can do to help get gun legislation passed. They told him: Speak out.
“That’s why I am here today. I’m speaking out,” he said. “What we know is that things need to change now.”
Passing “common sense gun legislation” is part of the solution to stop gun violence, McKee said.
“It’s time,” he said. “And I am proud to stand here with all the General Assembly members who know it’s been time for a long time to act. It is time to limit high capacity magazines. It is time to ban assault weapons. It is time raise the age to 21. Send those bills to my desk. I will sign those bills proudly.”
Attorney General Peter F. Neronha, a Democrat, said that when he was a young prosecutor, most police officers kept shotguns in the trunks of their vehicles, but today many police officers have AR-15s in their trunks because they don’t want to be outgunned.
“I want the bad guys to have the pea shooters, not the police,” he said. “If we back the blue, back the bills.”
Neronha said high capacity magazines are not a “theoretical problem” in Rhode Island. Last year, the General Assembly asked the attorney general’s office to provide more gun-related data, and it showed that prosecutors handled 38 cases involving high-capacity magazines in just four months, he said.
Last year, when police investigated a gun battle between local street gangs on Carolina Avenue in Providence, they found magazines that held 30, 40, 50, and even 60 rounds of ammunition, Neronha said. “When those magazines are legal are we more or less safe?” he asked.
“Less safe,” the rally participants responded.
Neronha noted the state has passed gun laws in recent years, including a ban on “ghost guns,” which are handmade firearms with no serial numbers sometimes made with 3D printers. So when opponents of new laws urge officials to simply use existing laws, he replies: “We are using them. We have charged 77 ghost gun cases since that legislation was passed.”
And if people want to see existing gun laws in use, he said, “Come to Providence County Superior Court, go to Courtroom 9, go to the gun calendar. You will see our prosecutors every day, fighting to keep Rhode Islanders safer using these and other existing gun laws.”
Neronha said he supports all five of the gun bills that advocates called for on Tuesday. “They will make Rhode Islanders safer,” he said.
The state’s other general officers — Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, and General Treasurer Seth Magaziner — also spoke in support of the gun bills.
Lawrence E. Purtill, president of the National Education Association Rhode Island, said, “On behalf of Rhode Island’s thousands of teachers, I want to tell you: Enough is enough.”
Every parent has the right to put their child on the bus in the morning and expect they will return home that afternoon, he said.
“No parent should ever, ever have to identify their child by DNA because their tiny bodies are unrecognizable,” Purtill said. “No parent should ever listen to the last words ever spoken by their child on the release of a 911 call. No parent should ever hear that their child had to smear blood of them from a dead classmate to play dead to avoid being shot and killed.”
The issue is gun safety, not gun control, he said.
“The Founding Fathers, I’m pretty sure, did not intend a well-regulated militia to mean an 18-year-old could buy an AR-15 on credit and use it to kill school children,” Purtill said. “The next shooter is already planning his attack. Not another hour can be wasted.”
He rejected the idea of arming teachers.
“Think not only how dangerous that is, but how stupid it is,” Purtill said. “Our military and police are trained and outfitted with tactical gear. Yet Mrs. Robinson, the kindergarten teacher in Room 101, is going to be trained to stop a killer outfitted for war? No.”
Representative Karen Alzate, a Pawtucket Democrat who chairs the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus, noted that the nation has seen many mass shootings in addition to the highly publicized incidents in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York.
“When are we going to decide that mass shootings are not part of the fabric of our nation?” Alzate said. “We are better than this. We are stronger than this. And together, we will pass common sense gun legislation.”