R.I. Senate passes gun safe storage bill

Gun Rights

PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Senate on Tuesday voted 28 to 7 for a bill requiring the safe storage of firearms, giving a boost to the gun bill that appears most likely to pass this legislative session.

Senator Pamela J. Lauria, the Barrington Democrat who introduced the bill, emphasized that guns are the number one killer of children in the United States. “That bears repeating: not cancer, not motor vehicle accidents, but firearms are the number one killer of our children,” she said.

About 4,000 children are shot and killed, and 15,000 children are shot and wounded every year, she said. Society has done all it can to try to prevent children from dying from cancer, and it has passed laws requiring seat belts and airbags to try to prevent children from dying in car crashes, she said.

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“This bill seeks to offer similar safeguards for the number one reason American children die — guns,” Lauria said. “Gun violence is a public health emergency for our children.”

Republican opponents of the bill emphasized that Rhode Island already has a gun storage law on the books, and said this bill goes too far and infringes on Second Amendment rights.

Senate Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican, said most gun owners already store their firearms safely, whether or not they have children at home. “And I am one of them,” she said. “My husband and I do not need a statutory criminal or civil penalty to force us to keep children safe.”

Safe storage has been the law in Rhode Island for almost 30 years,” she said, but this bill “directly impacts our constitutional right to have a firearm readily accessible for self-defense.”

De la Cruz cited the 2008 US Supreme Court ruling in District of Columbia vs. Heller that established an individual right to keep guns in the home for self-defense.

“When the criminal breaks into our home at night or in broad daylight, he or she is not going to wait for a law-abiding citizen, a law-abiding gun owner, to go to his or her safe to retrieve a hand gun,” she said. “Every second matters.”

Lauria contended that the bill does not infringe on Second Amendment rights.

“What this bill does not do is remove any individual’s right to own a gun or use it in a lawful manner,” she said. “It only acknowledges that with those rights come the responsibilities to keep the weapon safely away from being used by children or those that are not lawfully allowed to have it.”

Lauria said the bill mandates that all firearms be securely stored any time they are not being carried by their owner or unless the gun can readily retrieved. Guns must be stored in a locked container or secured with a safety device that prevents unauthorized use.

The bill requires licensed gun dealers to display warnings of risks of certain firearms and it requires schools to distribute such information. Also, the bill requires that all guns — not just handguns — be sold with trigger lock, she said.

Under the legislation, unsafe storage of a firearm would be a civil offense punishable by a fine of up to $250 for a first offense and up to $1,000 for a second. Any subsequent violation would be punishable by up to six months in prison and a fine of up to $500.

Currently, Rhode Island punishes those who leave a firearm where a child can get it, but only if it is loaded and the child causes injury with it. Those convicted face a fine of $1,000 but no jail time.

The bill also expands that law so it applies regardless of whether the gun is loaded and extends it to cover not only children but adults who are prohibited by law from possessing firearms.

Violators would be charged with second-degree criminal firearm storage if such a person were able to gain access to the improperly stored weapon, and face up to a year in prison and up to $1,000 in fines. If the child or prohibited person were to cause injury with the firearm, the person responsible for the improper storage of the gun could face a first-degree charge, with up to five years in prison and $5,000 in fines.

The bill is moving forward early in the legislative session with support from top Senate leaders.

Before the start of this year’s session, Senate Majority Leader Ryan W. Pearson, a Cumberland Democrat, indicated he was going to advocate for the safe gun storage legislation, and said, “I think it’s a common sense thing we should do, and I want to get that one across the finish line.”

At the time, Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat who has had an “A” rating from the NRA, said he liked “the concept” of the safe storage bill but that he remained opposed to a state ban on assault-style weapons.

After Tuesday’s vote, Ruggerio issued a statement that said the Senate has passed gun bills he said did not infringe on constitutional rights, including a ban on high-capacity magazines and a “red flag” law that lets law enforcement seize guns from people deemed to be a risk to themselves or others. “This is another common-sense step that we can take to improve public safety,” he said.

Pearson, a co-sponsor of the bill, said, “Safe storage is a safety precaution that responsible gun owners already take. It lowers the risk of injury for children and teens, and helps prevent suicides and gun thefts.”

The legislation now moves to the House, where a companion bill has been introduced by Representative Justine A. Caldwell, an East Greenwich Democrat.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.

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