Providence Journal: Grassroots support grows for bill to limit guns in R.I. schools



PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Guns in schools. Impassioned arguments for and against a proposal to narrow the definition of who is allowed to bring a firearm into a Rhode Island school. No votes. And there it stands, a month and a half after the April 15 hearing.

But every few days, another town council or school committee approves one or the other of the resolutions the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence and the Rhode Island Association of School Committees circulated in the weeks before — and after — this House Judiciary Committee hearing. 

The coalition — whose members include a former East Providence police chief and the head of the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence — has also posted an online petition that says: "Some believe they have the right to walk into your child's school while armed without limitations. ... Help us clarify the issue and make it clear to them that they can't.''

Aimed for delivery to the leadership of the House, the Senate and Governor Raimondo, the petition reportedly signed by 748 people so far centers on a House bill (H5861) sponsored by Rep. Edith Ajello, and a companion bill (S743) introduced in the Senate by Sen. Harold Metts

Current law bans "possession of firearms on school grounds" but exempts anyone with a license or permit to carry a concealed pistol or revolver. The bills that lawmakers Ajello and Metts introduced for Attorney General Peter Kilmartin would repeal the exemption for everyone except those carrying a firearm into a school "in the performance of his or her official duties."

As of Friday, 15 public school districts — and two private schools — had approved resolutions supporting the legislation, according to the coalition: Barrington, Bristol-Warren, Burrillville, Central Falls, Cranston, Cumberland, East Greenwich, Exeter-West Greenwich, Lincoln, Middletown, Newport, Portsmouth, Providence, Tiverton and Westerly. Four more districts have it on their next agenda.

Some of the resolutions are more detailed than others. The one the Providence City Council approved in mid-April says simply: "Resolved, that the members of the Providence City Council hereby endorse and urge passage by the General Assembly of House Bill 2015 H-5861, an Act Relating to Criminal Offenses — Weapons."  

The House bill was one of several gun-control proposals on the House Judiciary's April 15 agenda, which drew a crowd. About 44 of those who signed up to testify were in favor of the bill, at least 27 against.

The advocates said: "The vast majority of states (39 plus Washington, DC) do not allow firearms on school grounds. Rhode Island is one of the few states that allows non-law enforcement concealed-carry permit holders to carry guns on school grounds. This law should be changed." 

The opponents said the push for "gun-free zones'' would leave students more vulnerable than they are now. "Basically, what you are saying is that you will not allow anyone to end a situation that could be ended immediately,'' said one speaker, who equated a gun-free zone to a "good-hunting-here zone with nobody to stop it."

On April 13, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action described the current Rhode Island law as "the one thing which keeps schools from being a complete gun free zone, which allow criminals to prey on innocent people with impunity.''

There was no common ground.

But in the wake of the hearing, former Rep. Linda Finn, the vice president of the RICGV, said the coalition now supports a change in the wording "to address the concerns of police/retired police who thought the original language banned them from carrying their firearms on school property while off duty. That was not our intention ... We believe trained law enforcement should be permitted to concealed-carry on school property as they are the only people qualified to handle hostile situations.''

There has been no further action in the House. The Senate bill has not yet been scheduled for a hearing. 

But in the interim, the school committee association drafted a "model resolution'" that its director, Tim Duffy, says his executive board approved "and directed me to forward to school committees."

The resolution says, in part: "The vast majority of states do not permit firearms on school grounds."

"The Rhode Island Association of School Committees’ Executive Board [has] voted to support banning concealed weapons on school grounds, except for duly authorized members of law enforcement ... [and] the Rhode Island School Superintendents' Association [has] adopted the [American Association of School Administrators'] 'Position Paper on School Safety: A response to the Tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary,' which specifically denounces 'efforts to bring more guns into our schools by teachers and administrators.' ''

"Therefore, be it resolved that ... [the fill-in-the-blank] school committee respectfully requests the Rhode Island General Assembly to support 2015–H 5861 and any and all legislative proposals that would disallow non-law enforcement to carry concealed firearms onto school grounds.''

For the record: the Gun Owners PAC has contributed $22,430 to Rhode Island politicians — including top Democratic and Republican House and Senate leaders — since 2002, including $8,025 since Jan. 1, 2013.

(401) 277-7078

On Twitter: @kathyprojo

(401) 277-7493

On Twitter: @JenniferBogdan

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