The State House stalemate on gun-related bills

Posted 4/22/21

Every year, scores of people make impassioned arguments about gun-related bills under consideration at the General Assembly. There are marathon hearings like the one that started in the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday afternoon and ended around

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The State House stalemate on gun-related bills


Every year, scores of people make impassioned arguments about gun-related bills under consideration at the General Assembly. There are marathon hearings like the one that started in the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday afternoon and ended around midnight.

Supporters of new restrictions call these a matter of common sense. They point to public support and a connection between gun violence and the sheer number of guns in America.

Gun-rights supporters respond by citing individual rights and the Constitution, how law-abiding gun owners are not the problem, and how new laws won’t stop people with a propensity toward violence.

These arguments, pro and con, get made year after year. Not much changes, even after the 2012 Newtown shooting that claimed 26 lives, 20 of those children who were six or seven years old. This time around, a bill to ban guns from schools (except for police) has a higher likelihood of passage, as seen by how the sponsors are Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and House Whip Katherine Kazarian (D-East Providence).

Given the prevailing stasis of the legislative gun debate, would it make more sense to focus attention elsewhere? While mass shootings get the greatest attention, most gun violence comes in two forms: suicides and shootings in poor neighborhoods. At the same time, there are examples of how communities and law enforcement can work together to reduce the bloodshed (and crime has mostly trended down over recent decades).

As Thomas Abt writes in “Bleeding Out,” “All guns are not the problem – guns in the hands of the most dangerous people and places are. All drugs are not the problem – violent drug dealers and substance abusers are. The more we fetishize guns, gangs and drugs, the more we miss the subtle truth that it is the behaviors, not the items themselves, that drive most of the danger.”

Looking to 2022

It’s widely expected that Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza will be part of the Democratic field for governor next year. He’s term-limited at City Hall and ended Q4 last year with almost $900,000 in his campaign account, so why not go for it, right?

Elorza was non-committal when asked last week during Political Roundtable about a possible gov run (although he conceded that governor is the only office he’s looking at). The two-term mayor insists he has a good story to tell, despite questions about various nagging issues (schools, pension, tough tax climate) and his ability to deliver on his various policy initiatives.

More than 60 years have passed since a Providence mayor was last able to make the jump to the governor’s office, though; other Democrats are waiting the wings (most notably Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and General Treasurer Seth Magaziner), and Gov. Dan McKee is holding a stronger hand than anyone could have once expected.

Redistricting battle

U.S. Rep. David Cicilline fired a major salvo last week in setting the battleground for the potential loss of one of Rhode Island’s two congressional districts. “Thanks to your INCREDIBLE support, we raised over $650,000 last quarter – that’s more than any other candidate running for the U.S. House in Rhode Island has EVER raised in a single quarter!” Cicilline crowed in an email.

Cicilline and U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin have long pooh-poohed the disappearance of one of their two districts as so distant as to be unthinkable. But the missive by the better-funded CD1 rep telegraphs his interest in remaining in the House. A head-to-head matchup between Langevin and Cicilline is considered unlikely, but the exit strategy pending upcoming reapportionment news remains a matter of speculation.

Voting in a blue state

From Russell Berman’s look in The Atlantic at “The Blue States That Make It Hardest to Vote”: “Unlike Delaware’s restrictions, Rhode Island’s voter-ID law can’t be described as antiquated: The statute is just 10 years old and won adoption under a Democratic majority with support from powerful Black elected leaders. Voting-rights advocates trace the law’s passage to the conservative bent of the state’s Democratic Party and tension that pitted Black and white Democrats against the state’s rising Latino population. Backers of the bill included the first Black speaker of the General Assembly. They shared stories of voter fraud they had witnessed, but opponents of the law saw it as an effort to suppress Latino turnout in Providence. ‘It was bizarro,’ said John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, the state affiliate of the national government-watchdog group. ‘Ten years later, I still don’t know how it happened.’”

Neronha’s week

Attorney General Peter Neronha had an active week. He expressed concern over a proposed license for a medical waste facility in West Warwick. “I urge the Department of Environmental Management to closely scrutinize this facility’s application,” Neronha wrote in a letter to DEM. “There is a lot that is unknown about this new technology. We must be satisfied that it is thoroughly tested for its impact on the environment and on the health and safety of facility employees and the general public before it is approved.”

Neronha also made rulings in two public records cases, siding with The Providence Journal over the RI Convention Center Authority, and backing disclosure of internal affairs reports (with redactions) in a citizen’s case against Narragansett police.

What happened with GE in RI?

Almost five years ago, in June 2016, GE Digital announced plans to open an office in Providence. “Our top priority is putting people back to work, so I’m thrilled that GE Digital is planning to bring hundreds of new high-paying jobs to Rhode Island over the next several years,” then-Gov. Gina Raimondo said at the time.

Five years on, however, the GE Digital office in the Providence Journal Building is holding steady with slightly more than 50 employees. The reason for this is based on woes at GE – summed up by the New York Times with this February headline: “Jeff Immelt oversaw the downfall of G.E. Now he’d like you to read his book.”

Immelt nonetheless remains a draw for business audiences. He spoke this week during an ongoing discussion series hosted by Laurie White at the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. (According to Commerce RI, the state has yet to pay GE Digital any of the incentives used to help lure the company to RI.)

Got civics?

A bill sponsored by Reps. Brian C. Newberry (R-North Smithfield) and Gregg Amore (D-East Providence) that would require high school students to pass a civic literacy test won approval in the House last week. According to a legislative news release, “Commencing with the graduating class of 2025, the curriculum will incorporate project-based and experiential learning, where students would conduct in-depth research on a local issue of choice, then engage with a government body to learn advocacy processes utilized to influence the subject. The Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary education at the Rhode Island Department of Education will implement the program.”

Reducing the risk of suicide

Antonia Ayres-Brown reports on the effort to reduce the incidence of suicide on Newport area bridges: “Melissa Cotta and Bryan Ganley first connected online in 2016. Cotta lives in Tiverton and, at the time, had recently witnessed someone jump from a nearby bridge. She was alarmed that there were not more physical barriers in place, and she started to see the bridges as a public safety issue. She contacted Ganley, who lives across the bay in Bristol and has been a suicide prevention volunteer since 1981. Together, Cotta and Ganley founded Bridging the Gap for Safety and Healing. From the start, their goal was the installation of safety barriers or netting on the Newport Pell Bridge, the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge, and the Mount Hope Bridge. ‘It kind of started out, as you know – we put it out there,’ Cotta said. ‘And people just got in touch with us and word of mouth happened.’ Over the past five years, they’ve heard from individuals across Rhode Island who have been impacted: surviving friends and family of those who died by suicide, first responders and police officers who work near the bridges, and locals like Cotta who have witnessed people jump. ‘Different things come up – like you go through guilt. You go through, what else could I have done? What didn’t I do? What did I do wrong? That kind of thing,’ Cotta said. ‘And we talked to a lot of survivors that feel that same way.’”

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. For a longer version of this column, visit www.thepublicsradio.org.


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