June 23. 2015 11:15PM
PROVIDENCE — The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony for more than three hours Tuesday from almost two dozen witnesses about who — if anyone — should be allowed to carry a gun on school grounds.
Current law bans guns in schools but exempts anyone with a license or permit to carry a concealed pistol. Initial bills introduced on behalf of Attorney General Peter Kilmartin would repeal that exemption for everyone except those carrying a firearm into a school “in the performance of his or her official duties.”
A late amendment to the Senate bill on Tuesday would allow retired police officers to carry guns on school grounds.
While everyone Tuesday professed it was the safety of children they sought to protect, they disagreed about whether guns helped or hindered that goal.
Gun supporter Dan Patterson, vice president of the Exeter Town Council, said concealed-weapon permit holders such as himself provide a level of safety at public meetings where there is no town police officer to protect the public from an attacker.
"As a council member I have a right to defend myself," he said.
But Kim Ziegelmayer, a mother from Smithfield and a member of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, asked: "Where's my right to protect my children" from the "more inherently dangerous" scenario of a gun accident happening at a school?
Her fellow coalition member Nan Heroux, of Middletown, carried with her resolutions from 23 public school districts and two private schools supporting the legislation.
"No guns in schools is the right thing to do," she said, quoting Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association who after the 1999 Columbine killings said "We believe in absolutely, gun-free, zero-tolerance, totally safe schools."
Joee Lindbeck, special assistant attorney general, told the committee that 38 states have similar gun bans.
And Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, said his concern centered on licensed gun holders leaving their weapons improperly stored or unattended in school and then getting into the hands of children.
But the legislation and their supporters faced tough questioning by Democratic Senators Stephen R. Archambault, of Johnston, and Frank S. Lombardi, of Cranston.
A "gun-free zone" sounds like a nice concept in theory, said Lombardi, but in reality "these deranged people" who commit mass shootings seek out the most vulnerable places such as schools and now churches to inflict their "evil." "So in reality... I'd rather have someone licensed to carry a gun on the premises" who could prevent or lessen the carnage, Lombardi said.
Archambault asked, "Wouldn't it be better to have someone trained with a firearm ... a person that could save hundreds of lives" if an active shooter appeared on the scene at a school? "I'm going to go with that person with a gun in a heartbeat."
Frank Saccoccio, of the Rhode Island Second Amendment Coalition, said, "This bill does almost nothing for school safety" but instead "criminalizes" the roughly 3,700 people in Rhode Island who have permits to carry a concealed weapon — and must qualify with their firearm every four years.
He noted that the current law with the included exemptions had been on the books for 20 years without problems.
But Jerry Belair, president of the Coalition against Gun Violence, asked: Were concealed weapons holders "criminalized today when they came here" to the State House, where they are banned from carrying their guns? "Of course not."
The judiciary committee was expected to table the legislation for this session.
Lombardi said the issue was "too polarizing" to bring to a vote at this time.
(Correction: An earlier version of this story made an incorrect reference to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.)
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