PROVIDENCE – Gun control laws that legislators may want to pass in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn. school massacre in December “are only going to impact law-abiding gun owners” and not criminals already inclined to break laws, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association lobbyist told more than a dozen state lawmakers Wednesday.
At an education session organized by Woonsocket Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt to help colleagues who will be debating gun issues this session, lobbyist Darin Gomes and State Police Capt. James Manni, who has been a firearms instructor for both the State Police and the U.S. Secret Service, answered sometimes detailed questions about guns, bullets and the weapons laws Rhode Island already has on the books.
Citing figures from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Gomes said Rhode Island already has the eighth strongest gun laws in the nation.
“Today,” Gomes said, “most gun owners are law-abiding citizens, but if you pass some of this stuff, you are going to make some of these guys felons overnight. They are going to go to sleep tonight a lawful citizen and they are going to wake up in the morning a felon and we just don’t think that is right.”
Manni said at the outset of the session that he was there as a “subject matter expert” and not to give opinions on legislation, saying he would refer such matters to Col. Stephen O’Donnell, who was not able to attend.
Baldelli-Hunt asked if there is a particular firearm that is currently available for sale in Rhode Island but that should not be sold to the general public.
Manni said he could not comment on that question. Gomes said “no there is not.” Because Rhode Island requires background checks for all gun purchases, Gomes said, there aren’t any weapons permitted under state or federal law that would be a problem.
Several legislators expressed concern about bullets that could pierce body armor worn by law enforcement officers, wondering whether those could be made illegal.
But Manni and Gomes seemed to agree that with the exception of specially hardened bullets to pierce body armor, which are already illegal under state and federal law, banning such ammunition would outlaw a wide array of bullets used by hunters and sportsmen.
“Most if not all hunting rifles can defeat body armor,” Manni said. “You would have to ban a broad range of sporting weapons.”
Gomes said not only bullets used for hunting can pierce body armor, “but you would have to ban several hunting knives as well. If the litmus test is: is it a device that will go through a (bullet-proof) vest, you are really talking about banning a wide scope of things other than bullets.”
Rep. Patricia Serpa of West Warwick said “I don’t want us as a body to move forward with making unnecessary gun laws and then in 10 years another General Assembly will be trying to undo what this General Assembly, well-meaning as we may be, put some things into place that aren’t going to change anything. I think we all need to take a step back, let some time pass and grieve.”
Rep. Teresa Tanzi told Gomes she has attempted to work with gun groups in crafting legislation “I haven’t heard any acceptance of responsibility or willingness to give an inch when these issues come up.
Gomes wouldn’t sit still for that.
He said that since the first piece of gun control legislation, gun owners have been yielding ground.
“You say there is no willingness for gun owners to give, we’re giving, we’re giving, we’re giving, every piece of gun control we have on the books currently is a right we have surrendered, whereas the folks on the other side want more. We are continually surrendering this piece and that piece. I feel we are at a point where gun owners are starting to stand strong because they’ve literally said, that’s it, there’s no more to give.
This time Tanzi wasn’t buying it.
“You are not here to educate us,” she challenged Gomes, “I feel as though you are here to feed us your standard, pat lines rather than educate us. I’m here to ask questions and I don’t necessarily trust anymore that I will get a reasonable answer.”
That is where Baldelli-Hunt stepped in.
“This is about balance,” the Woonsocket Democrat said, “despite what you may have heard in the media, this is a briefing put together to bring what I would consider both sides of the issue before us to clarify some misunderstandings or just simply to be educated on the issue of firearms.”
Sitting in the audience, Teny Gross, director of Providence’s Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence took issue with that.
“You talk about balance, you bring in a State Trooper who can not speak? That’s balance? It’s like bringing in the tobacco industry and no doctors to talk about lung cancer. People are dying from guns. It’s a joke that she says it is balanced.
“The NRA does the usual flip-flop,” Gross added, “it is a lying, misleading organization, unfortunately, that has a lot of good members. It has too much power, it has to be resisted. This should be the last time the Statehouse brings them along. This is a dishonest organization; they come here and sound all liberal and nice -- they dance on all sides and someone should call them on that.”
“I don’t know why he feels it is unbalanced,” Baldelli-Hunt said of Gross’ comments. “I actually had the State Police here to provide that balance.”
“My constituents say they are using (guns) for recreation, some of them have collections has hobbies, they may have 20 or 30 guns,” Baldelli-Hunt told reporters, pointing to one particular piece of legislation before the General Assembly that would require guns to be registered at a cost of $100 per weapon. That “would cost them $2,000 or $3,000 per year because it is a fee based on a per-gun basis,” she said.
Baldelli-Hunt said she is “neutral” on the issue of tougher gun laws “at this point. I am obviously in favor of anything that would protect our children, protect our homeowners, take some of the crime off the streets. But if we’re not going to do that, I’m not sure how effective that would be.”
“I think this was very informative,” she said of the meeting. “I’m very grateful that they were able to come out and speak to my colleagues. I’m hoping that maybe as the session goes further on, if we have additional questions important we get them answered, that we’re not learning on the floor during the debate. I think we need to be educated prior to voting on legislation.”