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US Supreme Court gun decision opens door on challenges to Rhode Island law

The decision now puts Rhode Island’s laws on concealed-carry permits within their sights.

A Smith & Wesson pistol on display at Heritage Gun & Coin in West Warwick.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Two days after Governor Daniel McKee signed a trio of gun-control bills into law, local gun-rights lobbyists celebrated a decision by the US Supreme Court Thursday that they say will make it easier for people to obtain licenses to carry firearms in Rhode Island.

In the Supreme Court’s 6-to-3 decision striking down New York’s licensing requirements for handguns, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that it’s unconstitutional to require that someone prove a “special need” before getting a license.

“We’re pretty happy with the response,” said R.I. Rifle and Revolver Association lobbyist Brenda Jacob. “So proud of our forefathers that they had the foresight to put this in the Constitution like they have. We’re still reading through [the decision] to see what other infringements were on our rights.”

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While the Supreme Court’s decision wasn’t expected to affect the new laws — to 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 — gun-rights advocates have already said they will challenge those laws.

On Tuesday, Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee signed into law a legislative package that strengthens gun safety laws.MARK STOCKWELL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

The decision now puts Rhode Island’s laws on concealed-carry permits within their sights.

New York’s law permits state authorities to exercise discretion in issuing a concealed-carry license. So does Rhode Island.

Frank Saccoccio, president of the Rhode Island 2nd Amendment Coalition, called the Supreme Court’s decision “a victory, because it puts into perspective that law-abiding citizens need to have their rights protected.”

Saccoccio, who is a lawyer in Johnston, said he already has one case involving permit holders denied carrying on state lands that is pending before the Rhode Island Supreme Court. He is also consolidating the cases of other gun owners who say the attorney general wrongfully denied them licenses to carry concealed weapons.

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“Now, I can’t wait to argue before the [state] Supreme Court,” Saccoccio said.

Under Rhode Island laws, either local police chiefs or the attorney general’s office may issue four-year permits to carry concealed-weapons, good to carry a handgun in Rhode Island and in other states that recognize out-of-state permits. However, the law states local authorities “shall issue” the permits to those qualified, while the attorney general’s office “may issue,” giving the state more discretion.

A spokesman for Attorney General Peter F. Neronha said Thursday the office is reviewing the US Supreme Court’s decision and “analyzing its impact, if any, on existing Rhode Island law.” A spokeswoman for McKee said they were deferring to the attorney general’s office. The Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association did not offer a comment.

The Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence called the ruling “extremely dangerous” and that it “risked turning the Second Amendment into a suicide pact.”

While Rhode Island was not one of the states noted by the court for having “unacceptable” laws on concealed-carry licenses, the state does allow law enforcement and the attorney general more discretion to determine if the applicant is suitable and has reason to carry. “It is unclear whether the state will be stripped of this latitude by that ruling,” the coalition said in a statement Thursday.

US Congressman David N. Cicilline called the Supreme Court’s decision “absurd and dangerous.”

“Protecting the lives and safety of Americans is not at odds with our Second Amendment rights. It is our duty to keep people safe and is why multiple states have implemented safety measures like limits on concealed carry,” Cicilline said in a statement Thursday. “As we see an alarming and persistent increase in gun violence all across this country, the Court’s decision today is an illogical, ideological farce from a radical Court that doesn’t reflect the will of the American people.”

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US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said it was a “massive win” for the gun industry. “The NRA, gun manufacturers, and their dark-money allies have spearheaded a ‘project’ to wipe all commonsense gun safety laws off the books,” Whitehouse said Thursday. “The ultimate goal of that project is to eviscerate even the most modest and necessary gun-safety measures, and today’s decision brought them a step closer. Now, more deadly weapons will flow into communities that have taken sensible steps to protect their citizens from violence.”

Rhode Island’s law authorizing local authorities to grant concealed-weapons permits dates back to 1927; a second law was passed in 1950 for the attorney general to issue permits “upon proper showing of need.”

Applicants must be 21 or older, have a residence or place of business within the municipality where they are applying for a permit, and “good reason to fear an injury to his or her person or property, or any other proper reason for carrying a pistol or revolver,” and must be deemed a “suitable person.”

Otherwise, it’s unknown how many Rhode Island residents have concealed-carry permits. While the attorney general’s office tracks the number of permits it issues, there is no tally from local police departments.

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The attorney general’s office handles the vast majority of permits, and its approval has varied over time and administrations.

Since Neronha took office in 2019 and up to March of this year, the attorney general’s office has approved 1,491 new and renewed concealed-carry permits. The percentage of denials have ranged from 8.4 percent in 2019 to 11.2 percent in 2021.

The percentage of permits denied under former Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, who served from 2010 to 2018, ranged from a low of 3.8 percent in 2018 to a high of 23.8 percent in 2016.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court has upheld the state’s concealed-carry permit law, finding that the state constitutional right to bear arms is an individual right, subject to reasonable regulation. And, it has also found in favor of gun owners who have been denied permits by local police chiefs.

Saccoccio has one case pending at the Supreme Court, where two men with licenses to carry filed a complaint against the state Department of Environmental Management for denying their ability to carry guns in management areas, parks, and woodlands controlled by the state.

Clayton Palmer of Warwick, who has a permit from the town of Foster, and Jack Peters of East Providence, who has a permit from the city of Warwick, are arguing that DEM doesn’t have the authority to restrict them from carrying firearms while not hunting. Both assert that DEM’s restrictions put their “life and safety in jeopardy.”

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Peters complained that he was surrounded by five coyotes while hunting in Foster last December; he was carrying an unloaded gun at the time.

The state DEM responded that the General Assembly has the right to set regulations on its property. “At no point ... do they articulate in any clear fashion how DEM’s three decades old rules and regulations restricting the use of concealed carry weapons on lands within DEM’s jurisdiction cause an immediate, irreparable harm,” wrote Special Assistant Attorney General Kayla O’Rourke.

In April, Rhode Island Superior Court Justice Linda Rekas Sloan denied the men’s motion for a temporary and preliminary injunction against DEM. Saccoccio appealed to the Supreme Court in May.

Saccoccio said he has seven other cases of gun owners who were denied concealed-carry permits by the attorney general’s office. Nearly all of them already have permits from their local police chiefs and previously had permits from the attorney general’s office, he said.

However, Saccoccio said, they have been denied by the attorney general’s office with the reason that “just self defense is not enough.”

In its policy, dated to 2001, the attorney general’s office says it considers several factors:

Has the applicant demonstrated a specific articulable risk to life, limb or property?

Can the applicant readily alter his or her conduct, or undertake reasonable measures other than carrying a loaded firearm, to decrease the danger?

Can the applicant properly use a firearm and properly secure it in accordance with Rhode Island laws?

How greatly will the applicant’s possession of a loaded firearm increase the risk of harm to the applicant or to the public?

Has the applicant demonstrated that he or she will not use the firearm for an unlawful or improper purpose, and has not done so in the past?

Does the applicant have a protective order?

Saccoccio acknowledged that the state Supreme Court has determined there is discretion for granting permits. His argument is there are no specific standards with the attorney general’s office “where a person can qualify,” Saccoccio said.

He thinks the US Supreme Court will back him up. “I am excited about this decision,” Saccoccio said.


Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.