SCITUATE, RI (WPRI) - Rhode Island leaders, including educators, legislators and law enforcement are picking apart the state's existing gun laws but there will no doubt be intense debate before anything is decided.
Colonel Steven O'Donnell is among the officials pushing to tighten state laws following the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. He allowed Target 12 access to the Rhode Island State Police gun range in Foster to show our viewers the power behind weapons available at local gun shops.
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"They're not designed for hunting," Colonel O'Donnell said. "They're not designed for anything but killing."
This year, O'Donnell decided he needed to arm his troopers with M-4 rifles ‘to keep up' with what they may face on the streets. In the past, only the state police SWAT team was equipped with the M-4.
"We can't be out-gunned," O'Donnell said.
District 31 Representative Doreen Costa is firmly against more gun regulations. While she is one of only a few Republicans in the General Assembly, she tells Target 12 there are also several Democrats against gun control.
"We already have detailed background checks and a 10-day [sic] grace period before you get your gun. There is no need to add more restrictions for law abiding Rhode Islanders," Costa said. "And this is not a one-party issue."
[Editor's note: Rhode Island's waiting period is seven days]
O'Donnell isn't worried about the law-abiding gun owners but points out their guns can easily get in the wrong hands. He also wonders why anyone would need a 30-round magazine.
State police Captain James Manni is the agency's head firearms instructor and a former member of the U.S. Secret Service. He fired a pair of semi-automatic rifles for us at the Foster gun range, including the M-4. He said "the wrong hands" have been known to tape a pair of high capacity magazines to each other in opposite directions, doubling the potential output.
"If you tape two 30-round magazines together, you could easily load 60 rounds in a really fast manner." Manni said.
And fire all 60 shots in less than 20 seconds he added.
Manni also demonstrated the power of a police issue M-16 A2 rifle that propels 3 shots with one pull of the trigger. That weapon is for military and police use only and not legally available to the public but Manni added that other high-powered, semi-automatics such as Uzis and M-4's are for sale in local gun shops. He said some have ranges of up to 6 football fields.
"We have seen them," he answered to a question about whether or not those weapons are on the streets of Rhode Island.
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At Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, investigators determined at least 100 rounds were fired, most of them from a Bushmaster AR 15 semi-automatic rifle. Twenty children and six adults were killed before gunman Adam Lanza killed himself. He shot his mother before the school assault.
Rhode Island gun control advocates freely admit the Newtown massacre gave their effort momentum, one state away from the scene.
Colonel O'Donnell said state and local police are studying the Newtown shooting to perfect how they'd handle a scene with a heavily armed, active shooter. And the details behind 20 year old Lanza's three gun assault are part of the discussion on Smith Hill where legislators, educators, mental health officials and law enforcement are debating current gun laws.
"Some of the laws that are there, tweak them," O'Donnell said. "Advance them or discard some of them. But the bottom line is to look out for some sort of school safety."
One potential change would be to reduce the maximum magazine size to 10 rounds. Finding a way to secure schools better is also part of the discussion, although O'Donnell tells us Sandy Hook was considered one of the safer school buildings in New England.
The Colonel would also like to expand background checks to family members of the person buying the gun. Connecticut police found out the guns Lanza used belonged to his mother.
"If you give someone a firearm in the house and there's someone in the house who is either a convicted felon or they've been arrested and convicted of a crime of violence or they have some mental health issues and they have access to that weapon, do you legislate that or not?" O'Donnell said.
Representative Costa would be against restricting the size of magazines but might support background checks for family members, although she wonders if that proposal would have a chance in the General Assembly. She did not want to comment on potential proposals from the panel O'Donnell is involved with but did tell us about another proposed law change that is already on paper and headed to a house committee very soon.
"It would charge a $100 fee for each gun you own and adds new registration requirements," she said, referring to House bill 3373. "And a 3 year mandatory sentence if you don't do it? It's just too much. And as written, it would take effect immediately which means all current gun owners would be breaking the law right away."
O'Donnell would offer no predictions about what may of may not make it on the books this legislative session.
"Like every piece of legislation, there's going to be pros and cons and people argue their points. But I think there should be some sort of reform with firearms," O'Donnell said.
He acknowledges everything on the table is subject to the difficult balance between the constitutional right to bear arms to protect yourself with the right to be protected from powerful weapons that can fire 30 shots in less than 10 seconds.
Copyright WPRI 12
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