City Councilors to Mayor Elorza: Scrap amnesty pledge or cancel gun buyback

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Providence City Council passed a resolution Thursday night asking Mayor Jorge Elorza and Central Falls Mayor James Diossa to remove an amnesty promise for Saturday’s planned gun buyback, or else cancel the event.

The non-binding resolution passed despite having the support of just one-third of the council, due to an unusual number of abstentions.

Five councilors voted in favor of asking Elorza to amend or cancel the event, three were opposed, and four councilors abstained from the vote. Three members were absent from the meeting.

The resolution asks the two mayors to “remove any promises of amnesty from the Gun Buyback Program and allow their Police Departments to test all guns received through the program, and if that is not possible that they cancel the Gun Buyback Program altogether.”

Elorza’s press secretary Patricia Socarras said there are no plans to change the event, being held at the DaVinci Center in Providence and Knights of Columbus in Central Falls from 9 a.m to 1 p.m. on Saturday. (People who can’t make it to those events can also email gunamnesty@providenceri.com to arrange a time to surrender a gun.)

Elorza and Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré promoted the event as an opportunity to get guns off the street, and are offering gift cards in exchange for the weapons. They argue it would be difficult to get anyone to turn in guns without a promise they will be kept anonymous and have amnesty from prosecution. The guns will not be tested for ballistics to see if they match unsolved crimes, and will be destroyed, according to the city.

Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune spoke in favor of the resolution and against the gun buyback program as planned, telling the story of her own partner who was shot and killed in New York City 15 years ago. His murder has never been solved, LaFortune said, and New York has held multiple gun buyback events.

“We will never know if any of those guns returned were the ones used in his murder,” LaFortune said. “I understand the effort and the intention of a gun buyback; however, if we’re unable to trace back how these guns were used or if they were used in violent crimes, it doesn’t necessarily resolve the issue.”

She voted in favor of the resolution along with Councilors Helen Anthony, Sabina Matos, Carmen Castillo and David Salvatore.

Councilman Pedro Espinal said he was struggling to make a decision on the matter, but ultimately voted against the resolution because he wants to get the guns off the street.

“This is really truly a tough one,” Espinal said. “When I look at what we’re currently under and I look at a possibility of removing a number of guns off the street, it’s really hard for me not to support that.”

Espinal voted against the resolution, along with Councilors Kat Kerwin and Rachel Miller.

“The practice of destroying guns without testing them has been used for previous city-hosted gun buyback programs,” Socarras said in a statement on behalf of Elorza. “It has helped increase participation in the the program, but more importantly is used by our city and successful programs across the country because if we forensically tie a gun to a crime that was voluntarily turned in, we still won’t know where it came from, who used the gun in a crime, etc, making for no investigative/evidentiary value to the criminal investigation. The risk in doing ballistics may result in nobody wanting to bring in guns out of fear of repercussions.”

But R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office, which ultimates prosecutes the crimes, counseled the city to run ballistics tests on the guns.

Councilors John Igliozzi, Jo-Ann Ryan, John Goncalves and James Taylor all abstained from voting on the matter.

“I believe that guns should be taken off the streets right now given the recent uptick in violence so I support the gun buyback,” Goncalves said. “But not being able to conduct tests for fingerprints, DNA and ballistics as a broad spectrum of advocacy groups have called for is also problematic. So instead of voting yes or no … I chose to abstain.”

Ryan expressed a similar sentiment, telling 12 News she would have voted in favor of encouraging the removal of amnesty, if the resolution had not suggested cancelling the event.

“I want the gun buyback program, we should get as many guns off the street as possible,” she said. “It’s a tough call.” She said the four councilors did not coordinate to abstain from the vote.

There was initially confusion about whether the resolution had even passed, as a majority of councilors present at the meeting did not vote in favor of it. But the clerk’s initial ruling that the resolution failed was reversed, as he noted the council rules say only a majority of the votes cast are needed for passage, excluding any abstentions.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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