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Newtown Shootings Prompt Debate Over Guns In R.I.

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File photo of a semi-automatic weapon. (Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

File photo of a semi-automatic weapon. (Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Proposals to ban semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines and impose a $100-per-gun fee to register a firearm with police are all under consideration as state lawmakers in Rhode Island prepare for a major gun policy debate following the elementary school massacre in Connecticut.

State lawmakers plan to unveil several bills in coming weeks designed to strengthen state gun laws. The package of legislation was worked out by lawmakers and representatives from the state police, attorney general’s office and the administration of Gov. Lincoln Chafee. The work began shortly after December’s shooting in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 first-graders and six educators were shot to death.

Already, proposals have been introduced that would require firearms owners to register their weapons with local police — and pay a $100-per-gun fee — and to require safety mechanisms on all guns sold in the state.

Rhode Island’s gun laws are considered some of the strictest in the nation, and the state is listed by several groups as one of the 10 with the strongest gun laws. Still, Massachusetts and Connecticut have tighter restrictions on gun ownership, and supporters say more can be done to prevent mass shootings and daily gun violence.

Providence city officials have urged lawmakers to ban semi-automatic weapons like the one the gunman used in Newtown. Lawmakers including state Rep. Teresa Tanzi have also called for a ban on larger magazines that allow a shooter to fire many bullets before reloading. Tanzi notes that domestic gun deaths have killed more Americans than all acts of terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks combined.

“This is about murder, about suicide, accidental deaths, mass murder, crime-related homicides,” Tanzi, D-South Kingstown, told The Associated press. “To me this is an epidemic. (Since 9/11) We’ve invested billions of dollars in homeland security. We’ve created whole new government structures. But something on the scale of 9/11 is reoccurring every few months.”

While the proposals set to be unveiled in coming weeks have not yet been finalized, they now include a ban on semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines and tougher criminal sentences for those who break gun laws.

Opponents worry that any legislative reaction to the deadly shooting in neighboring Connecticut is likely to pose a burden to gun owners who follow the law and be ignored by those who don’t.

“We’re just concerned that it’s only going to impact the law-abiding gun owner,” said Darin Goens, the Rhode Island lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, who was in the Statehouse last week to meet with lawmakers. “… The crime problems we’re looking at have to do with drug violence, gang violence, mental illness.”

Rhode Island requires individuals trying to purchase a gun to submit to a background check and a seven-day waiting period. Those who want to carry a concealed handgun must obtain a license.

So far, the bill to require all gun owners to register their weapons with local police and pay a fee has attracted most of the debate. Right now, state law prohibits police departments from keeping a list of residents with guns. Finn said a small registration fee is a small price compared with the cost of gun violence.

“Law enforcement officials should have an idea where guns are in their community,” said Finn, D-Middletown. “… And there is a financial cost to guns in our country — the medical costs, the law enforcement costs. I don’t think people who aren’t gun owners should have to bear the financial cost of guns.”

Under her proposal, gun registration information could not be released by police. The bill would also require all firearms sold in the state to include a safety device to prevent accident discharge.

House Speaker Gordon Fox has called on lawmakers to consider changes to the state’s gun policy. But passing legislation may be difficult, even in Rhode Island’s overwhelmingly Democratic General Assembly.

“We have over 50 laws on the books dealing with guns,” said Rep. Donna Walsh, D-Charlestown. “Are they being enforced? Why are we making more of these laws if we’re not doing what we already should be doing?”

Several hundred gun rights supporters rallied at the Statehouse last week to protest Finn’s idea. Several people interviewed said they don’t think the government has a right to know who owns guns or charge a registration fee. Coventry resident Stephen Balme said he worries the registration bill is just the first step in a wave of legislation prompted by the Connecticut shooting.

“They smell blood in the water,” he said of gun control advocates. “And they’re going to try to get whatever they can.”

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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