On one side of City Hall’s Council Chambers sat a group of people wearing pink or orange shirts bearing the names of the groups Moms Demand Action and the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, with slogans such as “#NeverAgainRI.”
Across the aisle were others in yellow shirts, many bearing the language of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and promoting the Rhode Island Second Amendment Coalition.
In the end, after hearing from a litany of speakers and engaging in a discussion that at times turned partisan, the City Council’s Ordinance Committee on May 16 rejected a resolution urging state lawmakers to approve a package of gun-control measures during the current session.
The council’s four Democrats – citywide Councilman Steve Stycos, Lammis Vargas of Ward 1, Paul McAuley of Ward 3 John Donegan of Ward 3 – co-sponsored the resolution. Specifically, it called for the General Assembly to pass legislation to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and prohibit concealed-carry permit holders from having concealed weapons on school grounds. It defined high-capacity magazines as those “capable of holding more than 10 bullets.”
The committee’s final vote was 4-2 against the resolution. Vargas and McAuley, the committee’s two Democrats, voted in favor, while the body’s four Republicans – citywide Councilman Ken Hopkins, Edward Brady of Ward 4, Chris Paplauskas of Ward 5 and Michael Favicchio of Ward 6 – were opposed.
Sponsors of the resolution framed it as an essential step in securing schools and providing for what Stycos called “sensible regulation of gun ownership.”
“Having these assault weapons, that are weapons of war, and high-capacity magazines in the general population is dangerous,” he later added.
McAuley cited law enforcement’s support for the measures outlined in the resolution as a decisive factor.
“On a matter such as this, I always defer to what the Police Department and the first responders suggest … I will be supporting this resolution,” he said.
Donegan spoke of the issue in personal terms.
“Both my parents are teachers, my wife is a teacher, and I’d be lying if I said that it doesn’t cross my mind every day that something might happen to them … Injecting guns into schools is going to be contrary to the safety of my family and everyone else’s family,” Donegan said.
Regarding the resolution’s language on high-capacity magazines, he added: “I just don't understand why you need to have more than 10 rounds of ammunition.”
“I believe that we must work together to protect our kids … I really think that there needs to be common-sense reform on this issue,” Vargas said.
The committee’s Republicans largely took a different stance.
Paplauskas noted that he was supportive of a 2018 resolution regarding concealed weapons in schools but was critical of the latest proposal.
“I’m struggling with this one … I almost feel like this one is here just for political points,” he said. “This resolution doesn’t make anybody safer. We’re going to walk out of this room tonight and the problem of gun violence in this country is not going to be solved, at all.”
Favicchio, the committee’s chairman, echoed Paplauskas’ sentiment.
“I just think the whole issue before us tonight is just political jargon … I don’t see this as making anybody safe,” he said.
Hopkins spoke of his experience as an educator and recalled an incident in which he helped subdue a student found to have a gun in his waistband. He raised concerns over enforcement and said he had mixed views regarding the resolution’s language.
“I’ve dealt with situations like this, real situations, right here in Cranston … We need to protect our kids, absolutely,” he said.
Hopkins proposed an amendment that would eliminate the resolution’s call to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and add language supportive of prohibiting the carrying of concealed weapons on school grounds “except by police, former police or school resource officers.” The amendment ultimately failed on a 4-2 vote, with Hopkins and Brady in favor and the rest of the committee members opposed.
Brady said public testimony on both sides of the debate was “compelling” and that he is “very swayable on this topic.”
“My father was a gunshot victim at a very early age, and it changed his life significantly,” he said.
He added: “We’re all here to make change, create change. So tonight I cannot support this as written, but it doesn’t mean I won’t support something like this if amended moving forward.”
On both sides of the issue, members of the public made passionate cases during their remarks to council members.
Tom Wojick spoke in support of the call to ban assault weapons.
“These weapons were not made for the civilian population … They were designed to kill humans on a battlefield. They're an assault on human dignity and life,” he said.
Ramsey Davis, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam, echoed Stycos and Wojick regarding assault weapons.
“These assault weapons are designed to mangle bodies … They’re weapons of war. They don’t need to be in the hands of civilians,” he said.
Former School Committee member Jeff Gale said a ban on concealed weapons on school grounds is needed to avoid tragic, unintended consequences.
“My worst fear is that an accident happens. The less guns that there are, the less chance that an accident happens,” he said.
Linda Finn, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, said Rhode Island is an “outlier” in terms of allowing concealed-carry weapons on school grounds. She said the resolution represented a call for state legislators to “clarify” a “contradiction” in the existing law.
She also said the presence of concealed weapons during a situation in which law enforcement personnel are responding to a school creates a potentially confusing and “dangerous” situation.
Tonya Calandra, on the other hand, called the resolution “misguided” and an attack on responsible, law-abiding gun owners – particularly concealed-carry permit holders, who she said are subject to a stringent process.
“Stronger gun laws have proven time and time again to fail … A person who wants to commit an evil act will do so regardless of the tool used,” she said.
Regarding the high-capacity magazine ban, she added: “I am not willing to bet my life on 10 rounds.”
Robert Birch said he stores his weapons securely and regularly attends safety classes.
“I’m a responsible gun owner … Tomorrow morning, and I going to wake up and be a criminal?” he said.
Jennie Hirst also questioned the value of the steps outlined in the resolution.
“Why aren’t we spending more time resolving school security in a meaningful manner?” she said.
This is not the first time issues of school safety and gun control have come before the council in recent years.
In December 2017, a proposal from former Democratic councilman John Lanni calling on the General Assembly to prohibit anyone other than law enforcement personnel from carrying concealed firearms on school grounds was tabled by the Ordinance Committee. It remained tabled until it was automatically removed from the committee’s agenda.
At the same December 2017 meeting, the committee unanimously recommended approval of a resolution co-sponsored by McAuley and former Ward 3 councilman Paul Archetto urging the legislature to ban so-called “bump stocks” and “trigger cranks.” The full council unanimously approved the resolution later that month.
In February 2018, the council unanimously approved a resolution sponsored by Farina urging state lawmakers to ensure gun safety in schools, including the use of metal detectors and the placement of “lock boxes” for concealed weapons. A subcommittee was also created to study the issue.
At the same February 2018 meeting, another resolution sponsored by Lanni calling on the General Assembly to pass legislation banning the carrying of concealed weapons on school grounds by anyone other than law enforcement personnel was approved on an 8-1 vote, with former Ward 4 councilman Trent Colford the sole “no” vote. Zoning change proposal withdrawn
In other business, a proposed zoning change seeking to reclassify a property at the southwestern end of Sage Drive in the Alpine Estates area from A-80 residential to A-20 residential was withdrawn from consideration during the Ordinance Committee’s meeting.
Attorney K. Joseph Shekarchi, representing the applicant, unexpectedly withdrew the request after several members of the community spoke in opposition to the zoning change. The change received a favorable recommendation from the Planning Commission earlier this month.
Those who testified reiterated arguments made during the commission’s meeting – that the change would affect the rural character of the area, exacerbate traffic issues and result in further overcrowding in local classrooms. A-80 residential zoning provides for two-acre lots, while the A-20 zone provides for half-acre lots.
Sage Drive resident Frank Gibbons said the change would serve as a “stepping stone for a lot of other developments to get rezoned.”
“I think that’s not in the best interest of Cranston or our particular neighborhood,” he said.
Tom Wojick said he views city officials as being too accommodating to developers.
“Business, business, business – is that what Cranston’s about, or is it about families? … There just doesn't seem to be a balance,” he said.