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Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Assault weapon ban, safe storage bill, dominate marathon session

"Red shirts" far outnumber "yellow shirts"

By Kevin G. Andrade, Rhode Island Current

Gun safety advocates, many in red shirts, wait for the start of a House Judiciary Committee hearing focused on nearly 30 pieces of firearms legislation on Monday, April 17, 2023. (Photo by Kevin Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

A bill to ban the purchase and transfer of “assault weapons” and another that would make not securing a firearm involved in someone’s death a felony dominated much of the discussion in hearings on nearly 30 gun bills Monday by the Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee.

Democratic Rep. Jason Knight Barrington sponsored H5300, which bans the possession, sale, and transfer of semi-automatic firearms with certain features. These include semi-automatic shotguns with a fixed magazine capacity exceeding six rounds or a detachable magazine and has either a pistol grip, or a folding or telescopic stock. 

Also included are semi-automatic rifles with a fixed magazine capacity over ten rounds or a detachable magazine with a folding or telescoping stock, protruding pistol grip, bayonet mount, flash suppressor or grenade launcher. A semi-automatic pistol that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine would also be considered an assault weapon under the bill.

Gov. Dan McKee submitted written testimony to the committee supporting the assault weapon ban.

“Rhode Island’s proposed ban presents a balanced approach to gun safety, prohibiting any purchases or transfers of assault weapons while also grandfathering in previously attained assault weapons,” McKee wrote. 

“When it comes to addressing gun violence, we need more than thoughts and prayers.”

Hundreds of yellow-shirted people rallied against the bill. Among them was Warren resident Hazzard Bagg.

“We’re the first people affected when things go wrong,” Bagg said in an interview, referring to gun owners. “This just seems like a mean-spirited assault on our rights.”

In his testimony, Frank Saccoccio, president of the Rhode Island Second Amendment Coalition, said many of the bills amounted to an attack on those doing things correctly.

“Why don’t you go after the criminals? Why don’t you leave the regular people alone?” Saccoccio said. “The Second Amendment clearly states that the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed upon.”

The committee recommended that the bill calling for the assault weapon ban be held for further study.

Gun safety advocates, many wearing red shirts, mobilized in the basement hearing room, where they outnumbered the yellow shirts by a substantial margin.

“Right now, gun violence is the main public health crisis facing this country,” said Angela Howard McParland, justice resource manager with Sisters of Mercy, a Catholic order of nuns focused on social justice issues. “Assault weapons are military grade weapons.”

According to World Population Review, Rhode Island has one of the lowest rates of gun deaths in the country, at 4.6 per 100,000 population. Supporters of the ban said it would work to keep that rate low. 

As recorded by the Gun Violence Archive, there were 154 mass shootings recorded in the U.S. in 2023 as of Monday, April 17.

According to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group, Rhode Island ranks 45th in the nation for gun violence, though the rate has increased 73% since 2012, a pace 40% greater than the nationwide average.

On average, 46 people are killed by gunshot wounds and 165 injured annually in Rhode Island, according to Everytown. Among gun deaths, 67% are self-inflicted and 30% are homicides. Unintentional deaths, undetermined deaths, and police shootings make up less than 5% of gun deaths.

Dillon’s Law

Dillon Viens, 16, of Johnston, a student at William M. Davies Jr. Career and Technical High School, was among Rhode Island’s accidental gun deaths in February 2022. He died of a gunshot to his right eye while visiting the home of 29-year old Marios Kirios, who was not present at the time, according to the Johnston Sunrise.

Kirios owned the weapon that killed Viens. Johnston Police charged him with four misdemeanor counts of failing to store his weapon safely.

“If he did that, Dillon would still be here,” David Viens, Dillon’s father, said in an interview outside the hearing room. “It’s common sense.”

Rep. Deborah A. Fellela, of Johnston, introduced H5369, a bill named Dillon’s Law.

“The intent of this legislation is to make it a felony where unsafe storage leads to the death of a child or adult,” she said in her testimony. 

The committee recommended the bill be held for further study.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on their versions of the bills. Viens, who said he was not involved in legislative advocacy until his son’s passing, said he plans to be there in Dillon’s memory.

“I’m just fighting for Dillon,” he said. 

Rhode Island Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Rhode Island Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janine L. Weisman for questions: Follow Rhode Island Current on Facebook and Twitter.