BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — The town council meeting in late June began like any other in this rural town at the northwest corner of Rhode Island: the pledge of allegiance, fond reminiscing about a tour at the local charcuterie plant, and the swearing-in of a new police officer who’d grown up in town. A council member jokingly wished the officer “the most boring career” in town.
No one mentioned the high-capacity gun magazines on the table in front of Council President Donald A. Fox.
It wasn’t until nearly an hour later, after the police chief and nearly all of the officers left, when Fox held up the magazines and declared that he would not comply with the recently passed state law that made it a felony to possess gun magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. Residents have six months from the day the law was signed to surrender the larger-capacity magazines to police, transfer them to people in states where they are legal, or modify them. Those who choose not to comply could face a fine of up to $5,000, or spend up to five years in prison.
Fox swore to bring his high-capacity magazines to every meeting, even after the mid-December date when the law takes effect.
“I’ll never give them up,” Fox declared. “And I recommend that anybody in Burrillville does the same.”
This opening salvo from Fox and the other six members of the Town Council, both Democrats and Republicans, came on June 22, the day after Governor Daniel McKee signed three gun bills into law, raising the minimum age for purchases, prohibiting the open-carry of long-guns, and limiting magazine capacity.
“The Burrillville Town Council is not looking to advocate not following all laws, but this is one issue that violates the Constitution. This particular law violates our constitutional rights,” Fox, who is a Republican, told the Globe in an interview Monday. “Most of the stupid laws passed by Providence are usually unfunded mandates, but we have to follow them. But in this particular case, the Burrillville Town Council took an oath to uphold the Constitution.”
The discussion at the June town council meeting roiled with arguments between anti-gun residents and councilmembers who pounded on the table as they commiserated with gun owners. It concluded with ejecting an anti-gun retiree who shouted at a councilman who tried to refocus the debate on “Black kids killing Black kids” in Chicago.
“I’m sorry that what happened here happened here tonight, but that’s sort of the woke political nonsense that we’re seeing all over this country,” Fox said after an officer escorted 63-year-old Frances DiBisceglia out of the meeting. “I can tell you in this room that doesn’t fly for us.”
It remains to be seen how the town council’s defiance against the state law will play out. The council is holding a public meeting to discuss the issue Wednesday night, starting with a nonpublic session to talk about possible litigation. A Glocester gun shop and four Rhode Island gun owners have already filed a lawsuit in US District Court.
“As much as we’re upset as a town, it’s important to understand if town has standing,” Fox said.
Fox warned that there is one thing the Town Council can control: “The town will not allocate funds to confiscate or seize any gun magazines,” he said. “We control the police budget.”
The police chief, Colonel Stephen Lynch, said that he is waiting to see what happens.
“I made my position clear some time ago. I can’t pick and choose what laws to enforce or not enforce,” Lynch told the Globe on Tuesday.
There are still five more months before the law takes effect, which gives the town council plenty of time to decide what it wants to do. Lynch said the police department is not going to take extreme measures, like going to people’s homes to search for high-capacity magazines.
The chief deflected a question about what will happen if the town council president continues to bring his high-capacity magazines to town hall after the deadline has passed.
“My hope is that they come to a resolution that doesn’t affect us,” Lynch said.
Fox was coy about whether he would flout the law and risk arrest.
“I guess we’ll find out six months from now,” Fox said.
This passion for gun rights is nothing new in Burrillville, which in 2019 became the first town in Rhode Island to declare itself a “Second Amendment Sanctuary Town.” The designation is symbolic; Lynch said that the resolution has no impact on the police officers’ ability to enforce the gun laws.
However, it was attractive enough that a Second Amendment enthusiast, Ronald Armand Andruchuk, moved to Burrillville late last year with a stockpile of more than 200 firearms. Andruchuk told police officers that he paid $500,000 cash for his home on Tarkiln Road because it was in a “Second Amendment Sanctuary City,” according to a police report.
Andruchuk was baffled when he was arrested in February for shooting into his neighbor’s yard, telling the officers “this was why he and his family moved here and that if he could not shoot on his property, he would consider moving to a place like Connecticut where he would have more freedom regarding firearms.” Andruchuk is still in federal prison awaiting trial on multiple federal and state firearms and drug charges.
Fox said that Andruchuk’s case has nothing to do with the gun-rights movement. “He wasn’t being deprived of constitutional rights,” Fox said. “If you want to arm yourself with a small arsenal, you can do it as long as it’s legal.”
But DiBisceglia and other residents say they had worried about what that Second Amendment Sanctuary Town resolution signaled. And they don’t want the town to defy the state laws.
After attending the Democratic Town Committee meeting that evening, DiBisceglia and Frederick Hunt stopped by the Town Council meeting to hear the discussion.
They were among a handful of residents in the audience. They didn’t intend to say anything, until Fox held up the gun magazines and declared he would not comply with the law, and then invited public comment.
Hunt, 69, decided he had to say something. “It’s Burrillville, it’s Republican, it’s all about guns over here, but there are a lot of people who don’t agree with them,” Hunt said. “That was my point, you are representing the town.”
DiBisceglia also spoke up in favor of the law.
“I just wanted to make my voice heard, because I think what they’re doing is not appropriate for a town council,” DiBisceglia said later. “They do a decent job governing the town, but their politics are radical and extreme. They fashion themselves as Minutemen who need to defend democracy against the Democrats in Providence.”
Neither of them expected most of the councilmembers to push back at them and mock their opinions on gun control.
“We don’t need to be creating new laws to make law-abiding citizens into felons,” said Bailey, who is a Democrat. “That’s unconstitutional, and I’ll fight it with every fiber of my being. If the town has to sign onto a lawsuit to sue the state and bring it up to the Supreme Court, I am fully on board to do that.”
A few gun owners, some of whom lived out of town, thanked the council for taking a stand. Some council members continued disparaging the two retirees who’d spoken in favor of the law.
“If you think for a second that the punks that are out there are perpetrating the violence are not gonna continue doing what they’re doing because there’s a large capacity magazine ban, that’s a pipe dream,” said Councilman Dennis Anderson, a Republican, while pounding the table. “If every punk that breaks a window gets thrown in jail, and they throw away the key, pretty soon they won’t be out there gangbanging and shooting people up. Chicago -- where is the moral outrage on these Black kids killing Black kids every weekend?”
DiBisceglia stood up and yelled: “You have no right to bring up race! That’s racist!” Fox signaled for a police officer to have her removed, and Hunt walked out with her.
On Tuesday, DiBisceglia said she didn’t regret speaking up, even if it meant being thrown out of the meeting. This is a live-and-let-live kind of town, she said, working class, and predominantly white. It’s understood that most people probably have guns here, she said. But that doesn’t mean everyone agrees with the town council.
“I think people are afraid to speak up, and they have their own lives and they are more concerned about putting food on the table,” DiBisceglia said. “But I think there are concerns about the radical right taking over.”
Hunt said he’s seen Burrillville change in his 37 years here, and like everywhere else in the country, his hometown has become more divided.
He’s known Republican Councilman Stephen Rawson for years, their sons played sports together. “We had disagreements back in the day, but we could discuss it,” Hunt said. “But not now.”
The council members have chosen sides when it comes to the issue of guns, and are willing to defy the law if they don’t agree with it.
“They say that small town politics reflects the country,” Hunt said, “and this is it, in a nutshell.”
This article has been updated to clarify an objection made by a resident during a town council meeting in June.