Democrats out of step on gun control in R.I.
Often, the progressive movement in Rhode Island is portrayed as a local version of the national conversation inside the Democratic Party. Nationally, our party is having a vigorous debate over whether we should truly crack down on Wall Street, whether we should support economic growth through stimulus, and whether we should be satisfied with Obamacare or push for Medicare for all.
That is an important debate, but it is not the debate we are having in Rhode Island. Instead, we are fighting over the basics
— whether Rhode Island should repeal tax cuts for the rich, repeal the voter ID law, protect a woman’s right to choose and pass commonsense gun-control reforms.
Today, I want to focus on guns. In the Rhode Island House of Representatives, support for reform is shockingly low. For instance, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed is also NRA-endorsed, but she “only” has an A rating, and she did sign onto a bill to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers
— something for which I give her real credit.
Cale Keable, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee (which oversees most gun bills), also has an A. In the Senate, his counterpart, Judiciary Chairman Mike McCaffrey, has an A-plus. All of these politicians are Democrats.
Outside of Rhode Island, when Democrats side with the NRA, liberals often point to the organization’s incredible political power and endless stream of cash. But in Rhode Island, I don’t think that’s the full story.
To be sure, the NRA is very powerful in our state. Its local affiliate pays former House Speaker William Murphy, a conservative Democrat, as its lobbyist. It used to flood Rhode Island’s top General Assembly Democrats with cash. But after I led an investigation into the NRA’s campaign finances, it was forced to shut down its PAC until it paid a $63,000 fine. It has since paid the fine and reopened, but the cash flow has slowed down considerably. And Rhode Island’s NRA Democrats haven’t changed their views.
So I view it as a matter of core belief, not one of caving to the money or political pressure. I think Rhode Island’s NRA Democrats honestly believe in the NRA’s agenda.
The Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence has worked hard to compromise. This year, instead of pushing for an assault weapons ban or a registry, the coalition is focusing on more incremental reforms: a high-capacity magazine ban, closing a loophole that lets guns into schools, and preventing domestic abusers from accessing guns.
Everytown for Gun Safety, the national group run by Michael Bloomberg, is also supporting restricting gun access for domestic violence abusers in Rhode Island. Even with this compromise approach, there has been very little progress. Last year, the domestic violence reforms received some support in the state Senate, but the House opposed them, and they never received a floor vote in either chamber.
President Obama has been explicit on how he feels about NRA Democrats. He wrote a powerful op-ed in which he declared, “I will not campaign for, vote for or support any candidate, even in my own party, who does not support commonsense gun reform.” That statement couldn’t be clearer — Barack Obama does not support Rhode Island’s NRA Democrats.
Our federal delegation stands with the rest of the national Democratic Party on stopping gun violence. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse and Representatives David Cicilline and Jim Langevin all support an assault weapons ban. In fact, Cicilline is the lead sponsor. As Nancy Pelosi, the U.S. House minority leader put it, “Congressman Cicilline’s leadership on the issue of gun violence prevention in our communities has been relentless.”
I love President Obama’s passionate commitment to gun reform. I deeply admire the work Rhode Island’s U.S. representatives and senators have done to prevent gun violence. I just wish more of our Democratic state legislators agreed with them.
Common Sense has always been valued in our country. In 1776, Thomas Paine published "Common Sense" to speak plainly to America about the issues of the times. The ability to think, act and make reasonable decisions has always served us well. If only our leaders would apply common sense to the problems we face today.
Rhode Island applied common sense in restricting the number of bullets that a weapon can have for hunting deer and ducks. For deer, you are allowed five bullets per clip, and for ducks, three bullets. This seems reasonable.
But there isn't a limit on the number of bullets in a clip for weapons that anyone can have for his or her private use - weapons that are sometimes used violently. These clips can hold 30 bullets! This doesn't seem to pass the test of common sense. Why would anyone need 30 bullets in one clip?
State representatives Aaron Regunberg, Lauren Carson, Edith Ajello, Art Handy, and Joseph Almeida have sponsored House Bill 7199, which limits the number of bullets in a clip to 10. I would like to congratulate them for applying common sense to an issue that will increase public safety and not restrict the rights of gun owners.
I would think that if Thomas Paine were alive today, he would agree that this bill makes good common sense.
The Sakonnet Peace Alliance, which has held an anti-war vigil in Little Compton every Sunday for nearly 13 years, has joined the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence in seeking intelligent regulations for gun use in Rhode Island, as provided for in the Second Amendment.
As a decorated former Marine combat officer, I offer both groups my heartfelt support in this endeavor. I know from experience the horrible devastation that military assault weapons can cause to a human body — not only from intense firepower, but from the fact that their high velocity rounds don’t simply pass through a human torso, whether child or adult, but leave a path of internal devastation up to three inches wide, where tissue is literally gone.
I know also from experience the danger of handguns. At least three highly experienced Marines in my command managed to shoot themselves with .45 caliber pistols in Vietnam. These and other handguns are the most dangerous personal weapons I have ever come across — to the owner that is, or to their family — not to an enemy, because they are highly inaccurate.
I can only hope that other veterans or gun owners such as myself can see their way to joining the thousands of Rhode Island residents who support the Coalition Against Gun Violence and bringing sanity to what was originally intended in our Second Amendment to be “well-regulated” arms.
Peter V. Fossel
This past October President Obama spoke to the American people after yet another mass school shooting, saying, “Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at the podium ends up being routine, as does the conversation in the aftermath of it. We’ve become numb to this.”
His comments reflected the widespread frustration in the U.S. that despite the mounting toll, nothing really changes. It appears to me that Americans want something to be done about school shootings — but that the solution has to be cheap, with little impact on our own life styles, and it can’t conflict with any group’s cherished ideals. And it should have immediate and guaranteed success.
My own view is that, given the complexity of the issues involved, and the magnitude of the problem, we should embrace every reasonable proposal that can plausibly have an impact. We should be mature enough to realize that there is no free lunch and we’ll have to pay for the solutions, with money and/or reasonable tradeoffs in some of the prerogatives we now enjoy. After doing all that we still have to accept that nothing can guarantee an absolute end to school shootings once and for all.
As a child mental health professional, I am sensitive to the likelihood of furthering the stigma of mental illness when our patients are equated with mass murderers. And if psychiatric records become government documents, the very patients who most need our help may avoid us like the plague.
It’s true that the vast majority of those with mental illnesses are not violent and that they are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. However it’s also true that virtually all school shooters have shown signs of serious psychological problems (preceding their attacks) that might well have been amenable to psychiatric/psychological intervention had they been identified and addressed earlier.
The problem is that children’s access to mental health services is woefully inadequate in our current system, stigma still keeps troubled youth from getting the care they need, and prevention and screening are just given lip service. Our country could change all that with just a fraction of the money that was spent on the Iraq war — but we apparently lack the will. To be fair, such an expenditure, even if it were highly successful, would not guarantee that a shooter would not slip through the cracks; the known risk factors are too non-specific and the events, while sickeningly frequent, are still extremely rare.
The other major topic of discussion in relation to school shootings is gun control, obviously a contentious issue that pits liberals against conservatives, urban dwellers against those who live in rural areas, and gun owners against gun haters. At first glance, gun control seems to be a simple and obvious solution: if there were no guns, there would be no shooting. Restrict access to guns and there will be fewer shootings. One has to just scratch the surface however, to see the complexity.
Gun ownership is a constitutionally protected right in America. There are currently more than 300 million guns owned by Americans, making for relatively easy accessibility even if all gun sales were stopped tomorrow. Restricting assault rifles and large capacity magazines would seem to be a reasonable reform, but the number of people killed by assault rifles compared to handguns is tiny, and the impact would be small.
Despite these complexities, I don’t see how it’s possible to reject commonsense gun control provisions unless one agrees that mass shootings are worth the price for unfettered gun freedom. As a lifelong bird hunter and owner of a number of well-worn shotguns, I nonetheless support gun registration, waiting periods, restrictions on assault weapons and background checks, (including medical record scrutiny). I hate to compromise the confidentiality of psychiatric records, but for those who wish to purchase a lethal weapon I believe it is a reasonable requirement (assuming the review process is appropriate).
It is true that these measures will disproportionately affect responsible gun owners compared with likely shooters — because there are so few in the latter category and they are extremely hard to identify.
The way to deal with school shootings is not via an endless “either-or” argument that always ends up as a stalemate. Rather we need to exercise our maturity and embrace an “and….and” approach. Then we need to mobilize our incredible national capacity and get something done.
Gregory K. Fritz, M.D., is academic director at Bradley Hospital and editor of the Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter.
Author: M.J. Andersen
I was wrong about something. It was in 1998, the year two boys, ages 11 and 13, opened fire on their schoolmates in Jonesboro, Ark. They killed four girls and a teacher.
It was unimaginable — so sickening that it had to change things, or so I essentially wrote.
And I was so wrong.
Columbine was yet to come, and Virginia Tech, Newtown and Roseburg, Ore.
In between came more mass shootings.
Remember Kip Kinkel? He was the 15-year-old who, just after Jonesboro, killed his parents, then two students at his Oregon high school. He wounded 25 others.
That case, horrific enough to have seared itself into the national memory, is now barely a footnote.
The killings in gun-friendly Roseburg have rubbed feelings raw, and produced the same old debates about gun control. The Second Amendment sits in our midst, making it hard to come to terms.
Normally, when Americans see a problem, they roll up their sleeves. We have been a can-do society from the beginning. But on guns we are weirdly fatalistic, like some ancient civilization that believes capricious gods dictate events.
The gods appear to have offices over at the National Rifle Association, which cherishes a vision of an armed society, and is taking us there fast.
Its leaders are classic slippery-slopers. They argue that the least restriction means that more will follow. Finally, the government will confiscate your gun.
But no such thing happened after the federal assault weapons ban was passed, in 1994. In 2004, it expired. In the meantime, in the face of more shootings, several states have loosened gun laws.
Georgia now lets people carry firearms into restaurants, bars, airports and churches. Texas is forcing campus-carry onto a state university that for the most part vehemently objects.
Many have reasonably argued for treating guns as a public health issue. That means using the evidence to guide our policies, instead of immobilizing ourselves with rhetoric that keeps circling fruitlessly back to the Second Amendment.
Are you free to drive a car? Yes. But you have to meet licensing requirements.
Cars used to create a terrific amount of highway carnage. But in recent decades, safety requirements (air bags, seat belts, highway safety barriers) have cut the fatality rate dramatically.
We can do the same with guns, starting with universal background checks, which an overwhelming majority of Americans, including NRA members, favor.
We can stop thwarting gun-related research.
The NRA’s leaders may love bullets, but they quake at facts. In the 1990s, they secured legislative language that effectively stopped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from researching gun violence. The National Institutes of Health is similarly constrained.
Other know-nothing legislation prevents the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from keeping an ongoing record of gun transactions, though it could help enormously in tracing illegal sales.
Page 2 of 2 - NRA-backed strictures in the Affordable Care Act forbid doctors to collect patient information on gun ownership.
Getting gun policy right means finding out what is actually going on, everything from where criminals are getting their firearms to what kinds cause the most damage. But none of it has to mean that a law-abiding American must give up a hunting rifle, or a gun kept for self-defense.
Restrictions may not end all gun violence, but the right kinds could save thousands of lives.
As for Jonesboro:
Under juvenile sentencing laws, Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, were each imprisoned until age 21. Neither emerged with a criminal record.
Johnson was shortly in trouble, and has been serving time on gun, drug and credit-card fraud. Golden has apparently melted from public view.
In a 15-year anniversary report, published March 25, 2013, BuzzFeed contributor David Peisner made clear that no one who had been at Westside Middle School that day was over it. The sixth-grade class, now grown, is plagued by drug problems, divorce and suicide. One person described it as “the walking dead.”
The principal of the school had refused to blame guns. She had also received an approving letter from the Unabomber saying the shootings were “ordained.”
No new gun legislation was passed in Arkansas.
M.J. Andersen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of The Providence Journal’s editorial board. Her columns appear on alternate Fridays.