On a hot August day in 2018, a felon named Charlie Vick opened fire in a gun battle on the streets of Chelsea, Mass. Hours later, he was spotted 50 miles south, at a gun shop in Woonsocket, R.I., buying more .45-caliber bullets, authorities said.
The reason? Rhode Island has no law on the books requiring background checks before purchasing ammunition. Under federal law, felons are not allowed to possess ammunition of any sort, but without a state statute to regulate purchases, they can buy as many bullets as they want, authorities say.
Vick, 30, of Everett, Mass., ended up pleading guilty last month in federal court in Providence to being a felon in possession of ammunition. The US attorney’s office said Vick bought three boxes of bullets from Bullseye Shooting Supplies, a federally licensed firearms dealer in Woonsocket, in August 2018.
The case drew little attention. But it highlights an issue that often gets overlooked in the larger debate about gun laws: how easy it is to get a hold of bullets. While Massachusetts and Connecticut require background checks to buy ammunition, Rhode Island does not.
“It is a crime of opportunity for people who are prohibited from having a firearm or who don’t have a license to carry one,” said Special Agent Matthew O’Shaughnessy, public information officer for the Boston field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “They may go into another state where they don’t have the requirement to have a license, or a background check for ammunition, or they will elicit someone to straw purchase ammunition or firearms for them.”
Rhode Island is hardly alone. Massachusetts and Connecticut are among just six states that require purchasers to pass a background check before buying bullets, according to federal authorities.
Ammunition sales remain largely unregulated by the federal government and the issue is often overlooked in state legislative proposals, which tend to target the gun rather than the bullet, experts said.
“Ammunition is not the elephant in the room . . . this is the elephant in the other room that you don’t even know about,” said Glenn L. Pierce, principal research scientist at Northeastern University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “But you should know about it. Background checks are potentially a very effective policy because they could restrict access to ammunition [for] felons and other prohibited persons.”
Even Rhode Island’s governor, an outspoken advocate for stricter gun laws, said she wasn’t aware that state law lacked an ammunition provision.
“I didn’t know that,” Governor Gina M. Raimondo said when asked recently about regulations. The next day, she said she was open to the idea of the state adopting background checks similar to Massachusetts and Connecticut. “We need to do more to keep our schools and communities safe,” her press secretary, Josh Block, said.
Raimondo and Attorney General Peter F. Neronha are backing bills this legislative session that would ban “assault weapons,” high-capacity magazines, and guns on school grounds. But gun-control advocates say prospects for those bills appear to be dim in part because both House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio have “A” ratings from the NRA. Both are Democrats.
No Rhode Island legislation has been submitted to regulate ammunition.
In 2006, Pierce took part in a RAND Corporation study, supported by the National Institute of Justice, that found thousands of bullets and shotgun shells sold in Los Angeles were purchased by felons and others prohibited by law from buying ammunition.
“Policy makers might consider extending instant background checks to include ammunition purchases,” the study concluded. “A criminal background check would be an unnecessary inconvenience in about 97 percent of ammunition transactions in Los Angeles. However, in just two months, prohibited persons acquired some 10,050 rounds through retail outlets.”
The study noted a gun without ammunition is no more dangerous than any other blunt object. But “unlike the public health view on drug policy, which recognizes the importance of limiting access to both the agent of harm (the narcotic) and the instrument of delivery (for example, syringe), gun policy has focused primarily on limiting access to the instrument of delivery, firearms,” it noted.
The study said guns and ammunition are more likely to be used in violent crimes when they’re in the hands of felons (such as Charlie Vick) and others prohibited from owning weapons.
But state Representative Michael Chippendale, a Foster Republican and outspoken Second Amendment advocate who represents one of the state’s most rural districts, said regulating ammunition would do nothing to deter gun crime in Rhode Island.
“To try to delineate this issue on consumables versus the actual equipment is a fool’s errand,” Chippendale said. “There is a constant whittling away at the Second Amendment by making ammunition more prohibited, more difficult to acquire, and it is revealing the true intention is to abolish the Second Amendment.”
“Nothing will make the purchase of ammunition in any state dangerous in itself. Devoid of a firearm, ammunition is worthless,” Chippendale said.
According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, California and New York require point-of-sale background checks for ammunition buyers, similar to background checks on firearm purchasers. Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Illinois require people to obtain a relevant license or permit, after passing a background check, to buy or possess ammunition.
Linda Finn, founder and executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, said the Woonsocket case “shows that our laws are weaker than the surrounding states, and guys like [Charlie Vick] are going to try to find the weakness and take advantage of it if they can. It’s so easy to drive from Boston to Woonsocket — just a quick car ride.”
“The argument about being like Connecticut and Massachusetts resonates when you talk about schools or the business climate, but not guns,” said Finn, a Democrat and former state representative from Middletown.
As for the bills before the state’s General Assembly, House spokesman Larry Berman said bills banning assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and guns on school grounds are all still under consideration by the House Judiciary Committee. “Nothing is dead until we adjourn,” he said.
Berman noted that in the last few years, the Legislature has passed a ban on bump stocks, a law taking guns from domestic abusers, and a “red flag” law allowing police to disarm those posing a threat to themselves or to others. “If someone puts in a bill on ammunition regulation, it would be considered,” he said.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org