PROVIDENCE — After five hours of sometimes heated discussion, the House voted Friday night to pass three major gun bills: banning large-capacity gun magazines, raising the age to 21 to buy guns and ammunition, and banning the open carry of long guns.
Under the view of dozens of gun-rights advocates and gun-safety advocates, who sat together in the gallery looking down on the proceedings, the state representatives debated passionately about the bills and sparred over amendments that ultimately failed.
Despite the lengthy debate, the final vote showed that the outcome was never in question. The House voted 43-26 to limit magazine capacity, 52-16 to raise the age for buyers from 18 to 21, and 53-16 to ban open carrying of long guns. The bills will now go to the Senate.
The votes came just weeks after the mass shootings at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Soon after the shootings, Governor Daniel McKee, House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi, and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio pledged to pass meaningful gun legislation.
With that, legislation that has languished for years before the General Assembly suddenly had an infusion of interest, and life, when the House and Senate leaders reached agreement on these three bills.
There was scattered applause when House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi announced the passage of the first bill, banning high-capacity gun magazines.
When the final bill passed, banning the open carrying of rifles, state Representative Teresa Tanzi let out a whoop. The South Kingstown Democrat, who had been named a “Gun Sense Candidate of Distinction” by Moms Demand Action, had sponsored the bill to raise the buying age to 21.
“This is something that will make a difference in all of our lives,” she testified.
When the House session began Friday afternoon, however, the crowds were overwhelmingly filled with the yellow shirts of gun-rights supporters. They erupted in cheers and applause early on when state Representative Charlene Lima, a Cranston Democrat, said that the criminals would thank them for these bills. Shekarchi quickly threatened to eject anyone who interrupted the proceedings.
As he introduced the first bill, to ban high-capacity magazines, State Representative Robert Craven Sr., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he knew there would be a lot of discussion, but something had to be done.
“I think for me, it has been an increasing concern about what the solution is to gun violence,” Craven said. “I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but when the shooting happened in Texas, I got to the point where, whatever I have to do, I’m going to make it happen.”
The divisions were drawn along party lines, with Republicans offering numerous amendments to each bill that the Democratic sponsors argued would water down and even make the legislation unenforceable.
At one point, Republican state Representative Brian C. Newberry, who’d argued against all of the legislation, said, “It’s not the guns, it’s our society, I don’t know what to do about that, but everything we’re doing tonight is performative nonsense.”
Republican legislators attempted multiple times to kill or amend the legislation, particularly on state Representative Justine Caldwell’s bill limiting gun magazines. “People who are criminals will be outgunning law-abiding citizens throughout this state,” said House Minority Leader Blake Filippi, of Block Island.
They tried to carve out exemptions for victims of domestic violence with protective orders and for people with licenses to carry concealed weapons. They proposed having the state compensate people who turn in magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds. They pushed to have a “grandfather clause” for those who currently own large-capacity magazines and don’t want to give them up.
However, earlier Friday, Attorney General Peter F. Neronha had warned that a “grandfather clause” would essentially make the law unenforceable.
“Let me be clear: we need to reduce the supply of high-capacity magazines in Rhode Island. The addition of a grandfather clause would render this legislation unenforceable and functionally meaningless and is unnecessary to protect law-abiding gun owners in Rhode Island,” Neronha said in a letter House Judiciary Committee chairman Representative Robert E. Craven Sr.
The Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence also said they would withdraw their support of the bill if it included the grandfather clause.
The bills that the House eventually passed Friday night all have the support of the attorney general, gun-safety advocates, and law enforcement.
“As public safety officials, we are committed to safeguarding everyone’s rights while also supporting the need for change that can help alleviate the preventable gun violence that devastates families and communities,” said Narragansett Police Chief Sean Corrigan, the president of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association. “The proposed legislation outlines common-sense, reasonable measures that enhance the existing gun laws in Rhode Island and help ensure the safety and well-being of all of our residents.”
If the bill becomes law, anyone who now lawfully possesses a high-capacity magazine will have six months to come into compliance by permanently modifying the device, surrendering it to the police, or transferring or selling it to a federally licensed dealer or someone who is lawfully permitted to own or possess it.
“There will be ample time and opportunity for all to come into compliance with the law,” Neronha said, “and I am committed to working with my colleagues in law enforcement to ensure that the public is clearly and repeatedly educated and advised as to their options and obligations under this law.”
This article has been updated throughout with information from the debate and voting results.