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R.I. House passes safe weapons storage bills

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R.I. House passes safe weapons storage bills

May 28, 2024 | 8:19 pm ET
By Christopher Shea
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R.I. House passes safe weapons storage bills
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Gun safety advocates watch the Rhode Island House of Representatives debate legislation to strengthen rules for how guns must be stored from the House Gallery on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. (Alexander Castro/Rhode Island Current)

PROVIDENCE — Following an hour of debate, the Rhode Island House of Representatives voted Tuesday to approve a pair of bills seeking to set new rules on how firearms must be stored.

Safe weapons bill passes through Rhode Island Senate

The Democratic-led chamber voted 46-24 to pass a bill by Rep. Justine Caldwell, an East Greenwich Democrat, and identical legislation sponsored by Sen. Pamela Lauria, a Barrington Democrat, mandating that all firearms not in use by the owner or another authorized user be stored in a locked container or equipped with a tamper-resistant lock. 

“This is a bill whose time has come,” House Judiciary Chairman Robert Craven, a North Kingstown Democrat, said when introducing the legislation to the floor. “I believe it addresses a problem that has resulted in deaths.”

The legislation now heads to the Senate for a vote. Senate spokesperson Greg Paré said both bills will likely be scheduled for a floor vote Tuesday, June 4. 

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

Under an existing state law passed in 1995, gun owners convicted of “criminal storage of a firearm” can be fined up to $1,000 if a loaded firearm left within reach of a child age 16 or younger causes an injury to the child or others.

The pair of bills would also revise the existing law to increase the severity of the criminal storage of a firearm charge to a first-degree charge, which would make it punishable by up to five years in prison and up to $5,000 in fines in cases where a child or a person prohibited from using the firearm is injured.

“Leaving a lethal weapon where anyone else can use it is an invitation to tragedy,” Caldwell said in a statement. “Ensuring that all weapons are stored in a way that keeps them out of the hands that shouldn’t touch them protects not only the public in general, but gun owners and their families in particular. 

Both bills also require school districts to inform students and their families of the importance of proper firearm storage and safety. Additionally, firearms dealers would have to display a sign containing a warning that “access to a firearm in the home significantly increases the risk of suicide, death during domestic violence disputes, and the unintentional death of children, household members, or others.”

Caldwell’s bill was amended ahead of the floor vote to clarify who would be subject to the law. 

Penalties for not storing a firearm would not apply to would not apply if the weapon is being carried or “can be readily retrieved and used,” according to the legislation.

Lauria’s bill, which was passed by the Senate in March, has also since been amended to include this change.

R.I. House passes safe weapons storage bills
Claudia Townend of Charlestown holds a photo of Dillon Viens, 16, of Johnston, the victim of a fatal 2022 accidental shooting, in the west House Gallery during the House floor debate on a firearms safe storage bill on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Dillon’s father, David Viens, is shown in the background at left, holding up a photo of his son. (Alexander Castro/Rhode Island Current)

The legislation has the support of the state’s five general officers, which includes Gov. Dan McKee and Attorney General Peter Neronha. But Second Amendment advocates oppose strengthening the state’s safe storage law and have repeatedly argued that requiring guns to be stored in a locked container could delay a gun owner’s efforts to protect themselves and their families. 

“This particular bill renders firearm ownership practically useless in terms of defense,” said House Minority Leader Mike Chippendale, a Foster Republican. “Those seconds will make a big difference when I’m trying to defend my family and I cannot get to my safe or find the key to my safe or forget the password because I’m under pressure because there’s a maniac trying to kill my children,” he said.

Rep. Patricia Morgan, a West Warwick Republican, called the legislation “another attack on gun ownership. She also took aim at the messaging used by firearm safety advocates.

“As for mental health and suicide, you’re just putting that on this legislation to make it look good,” Morgan said.  

That elicited a few groans from lawmakers and audience members in the gallery.

“It’s just astounding that someone would dare to stand on this floor and say that,” said Rep. Teresa Tanzi, a South Kingstown Democrat.

R.I. House passes safe weapons storage bills
Rep. Teresa Tanzi, a South Kingstown Democrat, speaks during a House floor debate on firearms safe storage legislation on Tuesday, May 29, 2024. Seated at left is Rep. Leonela Felix, a Pawtucket Democrat. (Alexander Castro/Rhode Island Current)

On average, 51 Rhode Islanders are killed by guns and 165 people are wounded every year, Everytown for Gun Safety reports. That’s a rate of 4.7 deaths per 100,000 people. More than 60% of these deaths are self-inflicted.

Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, a South Kingstown Democrat, assured opponents of the bill “we’re not taking your guns away.”

“We’re telling you to lock them up,” she said. “You can live with this.”

Gun safety advocates, many of whom crowded the House gallery in their orange and red t-shirts, applauded the legislation’s passage through the House.

“The bottom line is that secure gun storage practices are an effective step we can take to keep guns out of children’s hands and save the lives of children, teens and adults,” Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence Executive Director Melissa Carden said in a statement. 

Moms Demand Action Rhode Island volunteer Amy Herlihy said the passage was a long time coming.

“We need to do everything we can to prevent gun violence” she said in an interview. “Every child should be able to grow up in a neighborhood where they’re safe and they’re able to do things every child can do.”