East Bay legislators lead the way on gun violence prevention bills

By Ethan Hartley
Posted 6/11/24

One bill that gun violence prevention advocates claim as their biggest success during this year's session, and two more bills intended to close 'gaps' in existing law, have all been put forth by an East Bay representative or Senator.

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East Bay legislators lead the way on gun violence prevention bills


Gun violence prevention advocates advanced at least one big win through the General Assembly this year, while two other initiatives await their fate in the Senate during this last week of the session. One major goal supported by nearly 3/4 of Rhode Islanders, however, appears destined for the “there’s always next year” category.

Interestingly enough, all legislation that has passed or approached the doorstep of passing this session aimed towards making strides to prevent gun violence has been pushed forth by legislators representing East Bay constituencies.

Safe storage bill heads to Governor’s desk
Introduced this year in the Senate by Sen. Pamela Lauria (D-District 32, Barrington, Bristol, East Providence), S 2202aa was the Senate’s companion to H 7373 (introduced by Rep. Justine Caldwell, D-District 30, East Greenwich, West Greenwich), which sought to expand the existing law mandating the safe storage of firearms by gun owners.

Prior to the new bill, Rhode Islanders who left a firearm unsecured would only face a fine of up to $1,000 (and no possible jail time), and only if a child got access to the gun and caused injury with it.

The new bill makes the unsafe storage of a firearm punishable by a fine of up to $250 for a first offense and $1,000 for a second. Any subsequent offense would be punishable by up to six months in prison and a fine of up to $500. The law also expands this to mean any unsecured firearm, whether they are loaded or not.

The new law also expands the penalties if an unsecured firearm falls into the hands of anyone (a child or an adult) who is not legally allowed to possess firearms (punishable by a fine up to $1,000 and/or a year in prison), and those penalties become a first-degree charge (fines of up to $5,000 and up to five years in prison) if a child or adult not legally allowed to possess a firearm causes an injury with it.

Lastly, the bill attempts to increase awareness of the law, requiring signage to be posted at gun shops (at the state’s expense) and informational pamphlets to be distributed by the Department of Education annually. It also requires all guns to be sold with a trigger lock, whereas prior legislation only mandated pistols have a lock at the time of purchase.

“I’m enormously excited and grateful and that leadership made safe storage a priority this session,” said Sen. Lauria in a recent interview. “It really gets to the heart of all causes of gun violence. The leading cause [of deaths by firearm] is suicide, and having weapons safely stored away from children takes that mode away from them. The leading way that children who commit school violence with guns…is with a gun from a relative’s home or their own home, so it reduces that risk. It also reduces the risk of guns being stolen and used illegally.”

Lauria responded to critics of the bill — some of which have argued that statistics claiming gun violence is now the leading cause of death among children and teens (more than vehicular accidents) is misleading and caused mostly by gang violence in urban areas.

“The number one cause of gun deaths is suicides. It has nothing to do with where you live,” she said. “This is not a problem that is somewhere else, it’s a problem that is here.”

Melissa Carden, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, concurred.

“It’s very important knowing that in Rhode Island, and nationally, 60% of gun violence is suicide,” she said. “Making sure guns are not easily accessible, or stored improperly, to prevent gun suicide is very important.”

Lauria also batted back at a notion that some gun owners claim using guns for home protection becomes impossible with a safe storage mandate.

“There are biometric trigger locks that take literally less than a second,” she said. “Police officers have safeties on their guns they have to disengage that takes about the same amount of time. I don’t think that’s a valid argument.”

Two bills await fate in Senate
Two bills that lawmakers argue correct oversights in existing law have passed through the House of Representatives and are now awaiting to see if they will earn passage through the Senate prior to the end of the session, presumably happening this week.

Bill H 8154aa, introduced by Deputy Majority Leader Rep. Jason Knight, (D-District 67, Barrington, Warren), would mandate that individuals under the age of 21 who are convicted of a violent crime be added to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which would prevent them from passing a background check if attempting to purchase a gun.

“In Rhode Island there’s a gap in what the NICS can see. It doesn’t see violent juvenile offenses,” Knight said in an interview. “In theory you could have a Rhode Islander with a violent history as a juvenile turn 18, go somewhere it’s legal to buy a gun at 18 and that record would not show up on a background check.”

Knight said the bill would not infringe on privacy rights because the juvenile’s criminal record would remain under seal and not visible to the public or gun shop owners, rather they would simply be flagged to not pass the background check, as the NICS system intends.

Rep. Jennifer Boylen (D-District 66, Barrington, East Providence​​), also has a bill, H 7216A, that seeks to modernize existing practices in Rhode Island. Her bill would mandate that all police departments perform ballistics tests on shell casings and weapons found at the scene of a crime, which is currently not required.

“It would be unthinkable for law enforcement to arrest someone suspected of some kind of crime and not fingerprint them,” Rep. Boylan said. “This is fingerprinting for ballistic evidence or a crime gun.”

Boylan, who served on then-Governor Gina Raimondo’s gun safety working group that convened shortly after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. in February of 2018, said the bill was a remnant of that group’s efforts to find common ground gun legislation that could tangibly save lives.

The bill, which was supported by law enforcement advocates such as the Rhode Island Police Chief’s Association and the Attorney General, would require shell casings at the scene of a crime to be logged into the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN). Guns found at crime scenes or taken into evidence following an arrest would also be required to be test fired at a state testing facility and also logged into the database, which would enable law enforcement to see if the casings or confiscated weapons could be linked to existing, unsolved crimes.

Rep. Boylan cited one case of a death by shooting being solved with the assistance of firearms ballistics — the 2021 killing of 24-year-old Warwick native Miya Brophy-Baermann, who was shot while standing on a street corner in Olneyville, Providence.

“Over a year went by and then Providence Police made a routine motor vehicle stop. Inside was a ghost gun…When they ran NIBIN after test firing it, they could match the casings to that gun from that murder,” she said. “This is a crime solving tool that really should be used everywhere.”

Rep. Boylan’s bill does have a companion in the Senate, S 2446 (sponsored by Sen. David Tikoian, D-District 22, Smithfield, Lincoln, North Providence).

Assault weapon ban gets no traction
Rep. Knight, who back in January introduced H 7217 to ban the sale of “assault weapons”, has introduced similar legislation in the past, without success.

This year, the bill was subject to a hearing from the House Judiciary Committee in March, but was ultimately held for further study and has seen no action since. It seems likely 2024 will be another year that the effort will fail, despite gun violence prevention advocates claim that poll data shows as many as 75% of Rhode Islanders are in favor of the proposed bill.

Knight — a veteran of the U.S. Navy who said he grew up around firearms as a kid, and whose father was a police officer — said that the continued hangup was “unfortunate”, especially since this year’s bill even included a pretty sizable compromise which would allow people who already own assault style weapons to retain them through a legacy clause.

“I think we are an outlier state in our little corner of New England. Connecticut has one [an assault weapons ban], Massachusetts has one. If we had one, it would be very hard to get ahold of that style of weapon and maybe prevent that kind of disaster from happening here,” he said. “We’ve seen examples of a person having a shootout with police in Providence…There are dangerous folks out there enamored with these things and it’s my opinion that you don’t need these things to exercise your 2nd Amendment rights.”

Even if the bill gains no traction this year, Knight and others said they believed it was just a matter of time.

“The bottom line is there are people with political juice who don’t want the bill, and they’ve managed to hold up the process for now, but it won’t be that way forever,” Knight said. “I believe that just given the politics of the issue and given the fact that Rhode Islanders want this, it’s eventually going to see the light of day.”

Melissa Carden said that the state has been remarkably successful in passing gun violence prevention bills in the past few years, listing off 10 bills that include a ban on ghost guns, high capacity magazines, bump stocks, straw purchases, open carry prohibition, and the “red flag” law that prevents people deemed at a high risk of committing violence from possessing firearms. She said that the tide was turning in terms of the people having influence over politics more than gun lobby representatives.

“The influence of the gun lobby has been waning over the past few years. There are more and more people who are standing with us and more and more young people who are standing for gun safety,” she said. “Clearly, the gun lobby had really outsized influence for decades, and people weren’t paying attention for a long time. But people are paying attention now...we’re hopeful they’ll continue to do that.”

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