PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The national founder of a gun control advocacy group was in Rhode Island Wednesday as part of a continued push to pass a ban on assault-style rifles like the AR-15, which are banned in Massachusetts and Connecticut but remain legal in Rhode Island and on the federal level.
Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo and Attorney General Peter Neronha are pushing for three bills this year: an assault weapons ban, a limit on the number of rounds that a magazine can hold, and a bill to ban most guns within 300 feet of a school.
Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, flew in from Colorado to attend an advocacy day for the bills. She founded the group, recognizable by their red T-shirts, after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012.
“Many of our volunteers are gun owners, they’re married to gun owners,” Watts said in an interview with Eyewitness News. “This is in no way about undermining the Second Amendment. This is just about restoring the responsibilities that go along with gun rights.”
At a news conference, Las Vegas mass shooting survivor Erica Keuter described the terrifying moments of the concert shooting on Oct. 1, 2017.
“One minute we were having the time of our lives, and the next we were just trying to save our lives,” Keuter said. She and her husband got on the ground. Their friend was shot.
“We heard screaming and crying, I smelled gunpowder, and I saw the carnage that one person could do with these firearms, all of which were legally owned,” Keuter said.
Raimondo knows the bills have an uphill battle. All three pieces of legislation have been introduced before and “held for further study” without being voted on. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio have received high ratings from the NRA.
When the bills were introduced, Mattiello’s spokesperson said they would “go through the regular legislative process.” Ruggerio’s spokesperson said. “he will await the public testimony at a full and fair hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
That Senate Judiciary hearing is set for next Tuesday. The House Judiciary Committee has already heard the bills, and no vote is currently scheduled.
“We’re gonna fight until we pass it,” Raimondo said. “If it doesn’t happen this year, we’ll be back next year. If not next year, the following year.”
She pointed to changes in the bills this year, including using a features test to define assault weapons and removing the list of specific serial-numbered weapons that would be banned. The bill to ban guns in schools has also been modified since previous iterations to make exceptions for law enforcement officers, contracted security officers or if the gun is unloaded and locked in a container in a car.
She also says having the full support of Neronha, whose office would enforce the laws, is a big change.
“And there have been more mass shootings since we tried last time,” Raimondo said.
Both Mattiello and Ruggerio have supported other gun control bills in the past, including the red flag legislation and a ban on bump stocks. Watts said she thinks they and other lawmakers can be convinced to change their mind on assault weapons, too.
“Early on I think [Mattiello] opposed the domestic gun violence bill and we were able to show him data and evidence that it would be effective in keeping guns away from domestic abusers,” Watts said.
Sen. Josh Miller, the lead sponsor of the assault weapons ban in the Senate, said it’s been a sometimes “lonely” fight over the years. But he says he has 22 co-sponsors this year, including four senators he describes as “formerly A-rated” by the NRA.
Rep. Michael Chippendale, a Republican from Foster, is one of the lawmakers opposed to the bills, which he says won’t stop gun violence but would take guns away from law-abiding citizens.
“As long as firearms exist, criminals will find a way to get their hands on them through illegal means,” Chippendale said. “All we’re doing is disarming the people who follow the laws.”
On the ban on guns in schools, Chippendale said he has yet to hear of a single example of a concealed carry permit holder in a Rhode Island school causing a problem.
“It is a solution searching for a problem,” Chippendale said. “We’re chasing something that sounds really good in sound bites and makes for a wonderful press conference, but achieves nothing.”