The police chief from Newtown, Conn., encouraged Rhode Island to ban semi-automatic assault weapons Wednesday as state lawmakers reviewed several gun control ideas prompted by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Chief Michael Kehoe was in Providence to testify before a legislative committee considering the most significant changes to state gun laws in decades. Gov. Lincoln Chafee and top lawmakers proposed the assault weapons ban and several other gun control measures following the December shooting in Newtown.
"These assault weapons can certainly cause devastating effects," Kehoe said. "These weapons are used for the military, born for the military. We have all kinds of laws that impact our ability to carry weapons. This will just be another one."
Hundreds of gun owners rallied outside the Statehouse to protest the legislation, which they argue would infringe on 2nd Amendment rights and do nothing to reduce violent crime.
"The real problem we're facing is gang violence and access to firearms by individuals with mental illness," said Frank Saccoccio, an attorney and member of the Rhode Island Second Amendment Coalition. "This legislation focuses on the gun, not the perpetrator, not the real problem."
The proposals would also ban high-capacity magazines, stiffen penalties for a variety of gun crimes, require handgun permits to go through the attorney general's office instead of local police, and create a task force 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.
Lawmakers haven't scheduled votes on the bills, which have the support of Chafee, an independent, and Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, all Democrats.
Rep. Michael Chippendale, a Foster Republican and leading gun rights advocate, said he expects the House to pass at least some of the bills, but he hopes the Senate might reject the most significant changes. He said supporters of the bills are exploiting Newtown to promote a long-standing gun control agenda.
"A rally is something people do before they go into a battle," Chippendale told the crowd of gun rights supporters gathered on the Statehouse steps. "We want to win. We want to fight against the lack of common sense."
Earlier this year, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, signed into law an expanded assault weapons ban and a prohibition on the sale of large-capacity magazines.
Kehoe said changes to gun laws won't be enough to prevent future tragedies like the Newtown shooting, which left 20 students and six educators dead. He also wants to see better mental health programs and fewer violent video games, which he believes can be linked to gun violence.
"It's important for all Americans to take a good hard look at ourselves," he said.