PROVIDENCE, R.I. — President Obama's executive actions meant to reduce gun violence were met with praise from Governor Raimondo and Rhode Island gun-control groups, but skepticism from local gun advocates.
“Gun violence has affected too many families across our country — it's out of control, it's unacceptable, and it's hurting our children and our communities," Raimondo said in an email Tuesday. "The President showed tremendous leadership today, and I strongly support his efforts to take more common sense steps to keep our families safe from gun violence."
Frank R. Saccoccio, president of the Rhode Island 2nd Amendment Coalition, questioned the effectiveness of the actions, such as expanding background checks: "Will it have any perceivable effect on crime?"
The actions the president laid out Tuesday include expanding the number of gun buyers who are subject to criminal background checks and making the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, more efficient. Obama said he also will hire more personnel to handle background checks and track illegal firearms trafficking, direct federal officials to sponsor research into gun safety technology, and increase access to mental health treatment.
Rhode Island is one of the states that requires background checks for all gun sales. That has little effect, however, when people can buy guns in states with less stringent laws and bring them here. When the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives traced firearms seized in crimes in Rhode Island, most were purchased out of state — and often from states with lax laws.
"If you can get background checks in other states, a lot of guns being used in crimes here and in Massachusetts will stop," said Jerry Belair, president of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence. "You're not going to stop it all, but you can stop some."
About 40 percent of gun sales are performed without background checks, said Belair, citing a study from the Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based organization. "A significant number go into the criminal market," Belair said. "All the president's saying ... if you're going to buy a gun, you have to go through a background check. That will curtail the criminal market."
However, Saccoccio had concerns about the president's direction to the Social Security Administration and Department of Health and Human Services to report to NICS the identities of people prohibited from owning guns for mental health reasons. Saccoccio served on a state panel that came up with recommendations for Rhode Island to send records of people with serious mental illnesses to NICS. There were questions about a "chilling effect" on people seeking treatment, he said.
The background check system is used to screen out those forbidden to own guns, such as convicted felons and people with serious mental illnesses. The system is imperfect, because some states aren't submitting complete reports on people's criminal histories or mental health records.
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch sent a letter to every state this week, asking for their support in submitting records into NICS. Raimondo said her administration will take a close look at the specific issues raised by the attorney general.
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