PROVIDENCE — Shannon Watts, founder of the national group Moms Demand Action, stood in the Rhode Island State House on Tuesday, praising advocates as Governor Daniel J. McKee prepared to sign three gun bills into law.
Activists in groups like Moms Demand Action and the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence spend long hours in legislative hearings and lobbying lawmakers, she said.
“And on top of it all, you have to go toe-to-toe with gun extremists,” Watts said. “But as I always say, don’t mess with a mom.”
The State Room, packed with advocates wearing red and orange shirts, broke into applause.
“We will always fight like hell to protect our communities and our families, and we will never give up,” Watts said. “And if you close a door, we will come in the window.”
Elected officials are realizing that there’s more political liability in opposing gun safety legislation than in supporting it, she said.
“That’s because gun safety isn’t just good policy — it is good politics,” Watts said. “What you have done in Rhode Island will save so many lives and serve as a best practice across the country.”
With that rally cry, McKee signed three bills that limit magazine capacity to 10 rounds, prohibit the open carry of long guns in public, and raise the age from 18 to 21 to buy long guns and ammunition.
“Today is about taking action and saving lives,” McKee said. “It’s about coming together and stepping up to protect the people of the state of Rhode Island.”
He noted the three bills received support not only from advocates and legislative leaders, but also from the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association and Rhode Island State Police superintendent Colonel Darnell S. Weaver.
“The nation is in crisis,” McKee said. “This crisis has taken too many lives and torn apart too many families. After the tragic shootings in New York and Texas, there was a call to action to address this crisis throughout the country.” And, he said, “Today Rhode Island is answering that call.”
After Tuesday’s ceremony, the Firearms Policy Coalition, a nonprofit focused on the “right to keep and bear arms,” issued a statement criticizing the governor and other supporters of the gun legislation.
“Governor McKee has spectacularly failed the people of Rhode Island,” the coalition said. “These draconian measures run roughshod over the most fundamental rights of the people.”
The group said the legislation will deny Rhode Islanders magazines that “became standard because of their immense utility in defending and preserving human life,” and it said the laws “do nothing but make clear the naked contempt the government of Rhode Island has for the security and well-being of its people.”
The coalition “McKee, and those of his ilk, need be reminded that the fundamental, inalienable rights of the people are unaffected by the stroke of a pen, so the group “will be investigating all available options to remedy this injustice against the peaceable people of the state.”
During Tuesday’s ceremony, House Majority Leader Christopher R. Blazejewski, a Providence Democrat, said although the bill signing was a celebration, it was also “a solemn reminder of what brought us here today.”
Blazejewski said he was in high school when the school shooting took place in Columbine, Colorado. “That day, in 1999, shook the country, but it did not stop the violence,” he said. “Horrifyingly, mass shootings in the United States have gotten more frequent and more deadly.”
He ticked through the grim roll call: Las Vegas, Orlando, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Parkland. And most recently, Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas.
“Every day I walk my daughter to her elementary school,” Blazejewski said. “Our morning conversations are the highlight of my day. I drop her off at the front door and give her one last wave goodbye as she turns the corner to her classroom.”
After the school shooting in Texas, he began thinking of the families that will never again have those conversations with their children.
“While our federal government remains divided and unresponsive,” Blazejewski said, today, ladies and gentlemen, we take action through common sense legislation aimed at preventing such terrible acts of violence from happening here in our state.”
Senate Judiciary Committee chair Cynthia A. Coyne, a Barrington Democrat, said Tuesday marked a proud moment for her as a mother of four children, as a retired State Police trooper, and as a state legislator.
“Public safety has always been a focus of mine,” said Coyne, who just announced she will not seek re-election. “Large capacity magazines have just one purpose — and that’s to inflict mass death and destruction as quickly as possible, and we know that. They have no place on our streets or in our society.”
The new 10-round limit on magazine capacity will not take away anyone’s right to own a gun, Coyne said. Rather, she said, “It tells Rhode Islanders we have heard calls for common sense gun reform and that we take their safety seriously.”
Sydney Montstream-Quas, chair of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence board, said Tuesday’s ceremony was was bittersweet. “It is certainly success and brings so much hope,” she said. “But so much blood and tears have been shed along the way.”
Montstream-Quas said June 23rd marks the “heartbreaking anniversary” of her cousin Johnny Montstream’s murder in 1998 near Rochester, New York.
“One gun, one bullet, took one beautiful life, and a loving father, and that shattered my family,” she said. “Too many of us here have lost loved ones — our children, our siblings, our cousins, our friends, to gun violence. We have experienced the deep trauma that guns can cause. We know data, but how do you measure the heartbreak?”
Looking around the State Room, Montstream-Quas said she is confident that there is enough momentum to “continue to strengthen Rhode Island’s gun violence prevention laws.”
“We are making history in Rhode Island — in this small but feisty state,” she said. “We are a beacon of hope for the rest of the country.”