PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello signaled Tuesday he is open to passing new laws this year regulating guns in Rhode Island, suggesting progressives in his caucus may gain traction on an issue where they have struggled in years past.
Mattiello, D-Cranston, implicitly acknowledged in his opening speech on the first day of the new General Assembly session that he is under mounting political pressure to take action on guns. That pressure has grown following last month’s fatal shooting at a Westerly apartment complex and a murder in Pawtucket on New Year’s Day.
Lawmakers “must protect the public from people who are not law-abiding citizens and who possess guns illegally,” Mattiello said in his prepared remarks. “While I strongly support Second Amendment rights, we need to get guns out of the hands of those with mental illness, as well as those who do not follow the laws.”
Mattiello — who has faced tough re-election fights in his Republican-friendly Western Cranston district — has long been a supporter of gun rights, boasting an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. But he has shown a willingness before to bow to the sentiments of his caucus, as he did last year when he green-lighted a new abortion rights law despite his own endorsement from Rhode Island Right to Life.
In his speech Tuesday, Mattiello suggested the House “will take a close look at adding provisions to our background check laws to require police chiefs, in each community where the person attempting to purchase a gun resides, to review applications.” That issue has been raised in connection with the Westerly shooting.
Mattiello also said the House will reconsider whether to ban 3-D printed guns and so-called “ghost guns” — after a previous measure to do so passed the Senate but died in the House, a fact Senate President Dominick Ruggerio went out of his way to point out in his own opening-day speech.
Additionally, Mattiello said the House is “looking at the implementation of a statewide records-keeping and computer system that will integrate all of our police departments, including the state police.”
Creating such a computer system “will allow easy communication and the sharing of information among all of our state’s law enforcement,” he said.
However, neither Mattiello nor Ruggerio touched on what Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo has flagged as her biggest regret of 2019: their unwillingness to pass measures banning high-capacity magazines or military-style assault rifles. She is expected to push for those bills once again this year.
“It makes no sense to me,” Raimondo told WPRI 12 in a year-end interview last month. “It just makes no sense why other states can do it and other people in other states can feel safe, and Rhode Islanders don’t have that same feeling of safety.”
No issue other than abortion has drawn larger crowds of citizen activists to the State House in recent years than guns, with yellow-shirted gun enthusiasts dueling for influence against red-shirted gun-control proponents. Members of the group Moms Demand Action were already seen protesting outside the House as Mattiello spoke Tuesday.
In a nod to the divisiveness of the issue, Mattiello said, “I want to assure everyone in the public that the House is listening and we will weigh the pros and cons of every issue fairly and objectively. We will listen carefully to the needs of our constituents.”
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook