WESTERLY, R.I. (WPRI) – If you want to purchase a handgun in Rhode Island, you must present a seller with a so-called “Blue Card,” which is supposed to prove you have a basic understanding of how to safely handle pistols and revolvers.

But the process to obtain a Blue Card is so relaxed that several law enforcement officials are calling for more stringent certification requirements. And many would like to see a better system of record-keeping, as there’s currently no way to determine whether a Blue Card is real. State law requires the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, which issues the cards, to destroy all records of applications within 30 days.

The lack of information makes it challenging for law enforcement to share information related to gun owners and gun purchases across the state, according to Chief Dean Hoxsie of DEM’s Division of Law Enforcement.

“We receive – on a fairly frequent basis – calls from local police departments when they are doing the background checks for the gun shops in their communities to see if we have a record of a Blue Card,” he said. “We tell them we don’t. There’s no database for Blue Cards.”

The issue has resurfaced in the wake of the December shooting in Westerly when a 66-year-old man shot and killed one woman and injured two others before turning the gun on himself, according to police.

In an attempt to learn more about how the suspected killer, Joseph Giachello, obtained the gun used in the attack, Target 12 requested a copy of his Blue Card from DEM. But the agency could not say whether Giachello ever had a valid Blue Card or if he even passed a required test to obtain one. (Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey said he’s since determined Giachello did have a Blue Card.)

“The Westerly incident certainly showed where there may be a hole in the system, which nobody wants to see,” Hoxie said. “I think because of Westerly and because of incidents throughout the country and the world it’s certainly caused DEM to revisit its policy and look down the road to where we may go with that and how it may be revised.”

Guns in Rhode Island

DEM does track the number of Blue Cards issued, offering a window into how many cards are floating around the state. The state says it handed out about 22,600 cards between 2015 and 2020.

But there’s no limit to the number of guns each cardholder can buy, and the cards never expire, meaning it’s nearly impossible for state officials to know how many weapons are owned in Rhode Island.

Rhode Island 2nd Amendment Coalition leader Frank Saccoccio is among those who say the state has no business keeping records of who owns firearms.

“We are absolutely opposed to a list being created with regard to Blue Cards because it does tend to indicate who is going to be a firearm owner,” Saccoccio told Target 12. “It violates Rhode Island law, and it violates federal law.”

In Rhode Island, a 1959 law prohibits any government agency from keeping a registry of privately owned firearms, unless the weapons have been used in a violent crime or belong to someone who has been convicted of a violent crime. At the federal level, another law prohibits the use of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, also called NICS, to create a registry of firearms or firearms owners.

It’s unclear whether keeping records of Blue Cards would qualify as a gun or gun-owner registry, but in 2018 a working group formed by Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo to study gun safety issues called for several changes, including some that would require a greater level of record-keeping.

“Some consideration should be given to repealing the requirement that firearms purchase applications must be destroyed by the local police department or [R.I. Attorney General’s Office] within 30 days,” wrote the working group. “Allowing for a longer period of retention, perhaps with some additional privacy protections, would allow law enforcement to more effectively identify straw-purchasers and trace firearms used in crimes.”

The group also suggested more rigorous safety training be required before a person can receive a Blue Card, as the current application process is simpler than applying for a car or boat license.

“Law enforcement as a whole and not just our agency here but statewide I think … would certainly welcome any increased level of training and proficiency for anybody going forward,” said Hoxsie, who served on the governor’s task force and was chief of police in Narragansett before working at DEM.

Lack of training

Currently, state law requires anyone applying for a Blue Card to participate in a safety-training course consisting of at least two hours of instruction in the safe use and handling of pistols and revolvers.

But applicants can opt out of the safety course and instead take a 50-question, multiple-choice test, administered either by DEM or by gun shop owners. The latter raised concerns among members of the working group, who warned “there is often no way to verify whether the test was properly administered.”

A score of 80 points or higher is required to pass. But questions are available for anyone to review ahead of time online. Two Target 12 reporters took the test without studying and each scored above 90 points. Roughly 6% of test takers fail the test each year, according to DEM data.

When asked how many people opt to take the two-hour safety course instead of the written test, DEM officials told Target 12 they could find no evidence that anyone has ever taken the safety course and the state doesn’t even provide one – despite it being required by state law.  

“For as long as I have been involved, the handbook – which people are encouraged to study – is the course,” said Catherine Sparks, who oversees the Blue Card program as DEM assistant director.  

To purchase a gun, prospective buyers must also go through state and federal background checks, and wait seven days before picking up a gun, making Rhode Island gun laws more strict compared to other parts of the country.

But the rules are more relaxed when it comes to safety certification for handguns. Even the hunting license process requires more intensive training, similar to surrounding states. (Hunting licenses can also be used as Blue Cards.)

Connecticut, for example, requires that handgun buyers complete a gun-safety course consisting of no less than 11 lessons taking about eight hours to complete. The certificate is valid for five years.  

In Massachusetts, handgun buyers must submit proof of a basic firearms safety certificate, which shows an individual received instruction on safe use and handling of guns, methods for security and childproofing guns and instruction on various laws related to owning a handgun.

The 2018 working group called for lawmakers to consider implementing some of the more stringent testing requirements used in neighboring states. The group has also proposed moving the Blue Card program into the R.I. Attorney General’s Office and requiring the certification be renewed every 10 years.

Raimondo and Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello have expressed interest in considering new gun laws this legislative session, both raising the shooting in Westerly as an example of why changes must be made. However, Raimondo wants more restrictions than Mattiello or Senate President Dominick Ruggerio have supported in the past.

How much ultimately changes may depend on whether there’s an appetite for a fight among rank-and-file lawmakers in an election year. Most attempts to change gun laws in the past have been met with significant pushback from both gun owners and lawmakers supportive of the 2nd Amendment.

“We are against putting [in] additional testing,” Saccoccio said. “This opens a whole host of additional questions: who sets the guidelines? Who performs the tests? Are the scores recorded, etc? On the initial purchase, it is not warranted.”  

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 managing editor and chief investigative reporter at 12 News, and the host of Newsmakers. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.