Rhode Island would ban the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazines under legislation proposed Tuesday by the governor, attorney general and top lawmakers in response to the December school shooting in neighboring Connecticut.
The measure would also stiffen penalties for a variety of gun crimes, require all handgun permits to go through the attorney general's office and create task forces to review state gun laws and the use of mental health records in background checks. Rhode Island already has some of the strictest gun laws in the country.
The proposals aim to prevent Newtown-style shootings and the acts of gun violence seen daily in urban areas, said Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent. He joined Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed to announce the legislation.
"Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook and then here in our own backyard," he said. "Somehow we have to reconcile what the Second Amendment says and what's been going on in our streets and in our schools."
The proposals, which are likely weeks away from a vote in the General Assembly, are already opposed by advocates for gun rights who accuse lawmakers of using the Newtown shooting in which 26 people were gunned down as a reason to take on lawful gun owners.
"They're going after law-abiding people," said Sal Caiozzo, a gun owner from Middletown who went to the State House on Tuesday to hear the proposal. "They should be going after the criminals, putting more cops on the beat."
Last week, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, signed into law an expanded assault weapons ban and a prohibition on the sale of large-capacity magazines.
The Rhode Island proposal might be expected to pass easily, since Democrats control overwhelming majorities in the General Assembly. But Kilmartin, a Democrat, said he expects a robust debate on a topic that often generates strong opinions.
"There are pockets of the state that would like to ban all weapons, and pockets of the state that would like to ban no weapons," he said. "That's why this debate is taking place in the General Assembly."
The most significant change proposed Tuesday would specifically ban the sale, purchase or possession of semi-automatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Any weapons or magazines legally acquired before July would be exempt from the prohibition.
New restrictions on semi-automatic weapons would be unfair and won't lead to a reduction in violent crime, said State Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster. He said the state should do a better job of enforcing gun laws before adding more.
"None of this will stop criminals from being criminals," he said. "Newtown was fuel for the fire. ... They are seizing on the blood of dead children to advance an agenda they already had."
Another part of the proposal would require all handgun permit applications to be handled by the attorney general's office. Currently, the applications may be submitted to either the attorney general or local police. Local police departments support the move, which is intended to create a single authority for permits and background checks.
The other bills would prohibit anyone convicted of domestic violence from possessing a firearm and raise penalties for stealing a firearm or carrying a stolen firearm while committing a violent crime.
Proposals already introduced in the General Assembly would require firearms owners to register their weapons with local police, pay a $100-per-gun fee and to require safety mechanisms on all guns sold in the state.
Following the Newtown shooting, Chafee, Kilmartin and top lawmakers convened an informal group to explore ways of strengthening state gun rules. The nine bills announced Tuesday are the result of that effort, according to Fox, a Providence Democrat.
"We all in this room - whether you're a gun owner or not - want to make sure our children are protected," he said. "Let the debate begin. Those of you who don't support this legislation, make your case."