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Senate President Ruggerio, with ‘A’ rating from NRA, at the center of the gun debate in Rhode Island

“I have firearms. I’m a Second Amendment person,” he says. “But we have to do something about what’s happening out there. Every day, it gets worse.”

Rhode Island Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio in the Senate chambers in 2020.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — After hours of barbed debate that resulted in passage of three gun bills late Tuesday night, Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio stepped into a State House hallway, surrounded by aides and sheriff’s deputies.

“I have firearms,” he told the Globe. “I’m a Second Amendment person.”

But, Ruggerio added: “We have to do something about what’s happening out there. Every day, it gets worse.”

The mass shootings that have devastated Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, haven’t happened in Rhode Island yet. But, he said, something like that could happen here.

Ruggerio spoke to the Globe after the Senate had voted 25 to 11 for a bill that would limit gun magazine capacity to 10 rounds.

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“There has to be a limitation on magazine capacity,” Ruggerio said. “I don’t see how you need a 30-shot magazine.”

Ruggerio, the North Providence Democrat with an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, has played a pivotal role in the passage of gun legislation in Rhode Island.

Earlier in the day, the Senate Judiciary Committee had deadlocked 6 to 6 on the Senate version of the bill, leaving it stuck in committee. But in a highly unusual move, Senate leaders immediately brought the House version of the bill to a vote on the Senate floor, where it passed and was sent to Governor Daniel J. McKee to be signed into law.

During Tuesday’s debate, Senate Minority Whip Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican, blasted Senate leaders, saying, “It was corruption of the process. It was dishonest to subvert the proper process to get this bill through committee.”

When asked for his response, Ruggerio said, “I wanted to give everyone an opportunity to vote. I did not want to have it killed in committee.”

In the end, none of the gun bill votes were close. After approving the magazine capacity bill, the Senate voted 31 to 5 for bills to prohibit the open carry of long guns in public and raise the age from 18 to 21 to buy long guns and ammunition.

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This was not the first the time Senate leadership had found a way around opposition in the Senate Judiciary Committee to pass high-profile legislation.

De la Cruz said she “had a front row seat to the scheming and machinations” when the Senate passed the 2019 Reproductive Privacy Act, which aims to protect abortion rights in case the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

In that case, Republican leaders showed up at a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, prepared to kill the bill by using their “ex officio” right to vote in any committee. But then-Senate Judiciary Chair Erin Lynch Prata, a Warwick Democrat, announced that she was transferring the bill to the Health and Human Services Committee — a more friendly venue for the legislation. And the act became law.

On Wednesday, the Rhode Island Republican Party issued a statement blasting Senate leaders for the maneuvers they undertook to pass the magazine capacity legislation. “Senate leadership engaged in an unusual parliamentary scheme to circumvent the Senate Judiciary Committee, which rejected identical legislation that same day,” the GOP said.

The statement also directly criticized Ruggerio, among others.

“What makes this hard to believe is that a bunch of shady State House politicians, some of whom are law breakers, have decided to turn law-abiding gun owners into potential criminals,” the GOP said. “For example, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, who engineered getting the bill through the Senate, has previously been arrested for shoplifting condoms and pleaded guilty to refusing to take a breathalyzer test.”

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In 1990, Ruggerio was arrested on a misdemeanor charge that he shoplifted a dozen condoms by stuffing the packages in his socks, but the CVS chain did not pursue charges. In 2012, Ruggerio was arrested in Barrington on charges of driving under the influence and refusal to submit to a chemical test. He pleaded guilty to refusing the test, and the DUI charge was dismissed.

The Republican Party also criticized McKee, a Democrat who is expected to sign the gun bills into law, saying the Democratic governor “has been fined by the Ethics Commission and his administration’s multi-million-dollar contract with ILO is under federal investigation.”

“There is something fundamentally wrong in a state where politicians, who have difficulty following the law, can pass a law that makes people, who never broke a law in their lives, into potential felons,” the GOP said.

While facing criticism from the right, Ruggerio also faces opposition from the left.

Lenny Cioe, a progressive Democrat running with support from the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, is again challenging Ruggerio in a Democratic primary in Senate District 4, which includes parts of North Providence and Providence. Ruggerio beat Cioe in a 2020, 54.7 percent to 45.3 percent.

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On Wednesday, Cioe argued that the gun bills would not have passed the Senate if he was not serving as a “strong primary challenger” to Ruggerio. “He knows his community is asking for common sense gun measures,” he said. “But think about how much time it has taken for him to act on this. He hasn’t moved on anything until two years ago.”

Cioe said the magazine capacity bill became stuck in a deadlocked committee because Ruggerio had appointed conservative Democrats to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “So it came back to bite him,” he said.

In a Globe Rhode Island commentary piece, Cioe accused Ruggerio of being “slow to act” on “much needed changes to protect people from gun violence,” and noted Ruggerio has taken nearly $5,000 from different gun lobby organizations, including the NRA.

But following Tuesday night’s vote, the current Senate Judiciary Committee chairwoman, Cynthia A. Coyne, a Barrington Democrat, hailed passage of the House version of the magazine capacity bill, which she had introduced in the Senate.

“High-capacity magazines have no legitimate purpose for hunting or self-defense,” she said. “They enable shooters to unleash torrents of bullets and inflict maximum harm in mere seconds, making them a tool of the trade for mass shootings, drug trafficking, and gang violence.”

Coyne, a former Rhode Island state trooper, said, “They put the public, law enforcement officers, and the user in greater harm. Making high capacity magazines illegal to sell and possess will enhance public safety.”

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The House sponsor of the magazine capacity bill, Representative Justine Caldwell, an East Greenwich Democratic, ticked off a list of mass shooting sites, including Uvalde, Buffalo, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Las Vegas, Orlando, Sutherland Springs, Boulder, and Aurora.

“High-capacity magazines have enabled mass shooters to commit the most devastating, appalling, and most lethal attacks on the public in recent decades,” Caldwell said. “With this bill, we are finally saying we will not tolerate these dangerous weapons. Our neighboring states have already prohibited high-capacity magazines, and we should join them in refusing to accept the risks they present to Rhode Islanders.”

This story has been updated with a statement from the Rhode Island Republican Party.


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