PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — After the deadly school massacre in Newtown, Conn., top Rhode Island leaders gathered to recommend ways to crack down on gun violence. Topping the list were proposals to ban semi-automatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
The idea came from Gov. Lincoln Chafee, House Speaker Gordon Fox, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed and Attorney General Peter Kilmartin and had the backing of the mayors of Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls.
Yet the gun control legislation was left to languish when lawmakers adjourned their 2013 session Wednesday. Other proposals to change the way handgun permits are awarded or to require gun owners to pay a $100-per-gun registration fee also failed after huge protest rallies at the Statehouse.
Instead, lawmakers passed legislation that would increase jail time for carrying a stolen firearm while committing a violent crime. They also voted to make it illegal to possess a gun with a destroyed serial number.
The General Assembly also voted to create a task force to study adding mental health records to the information used in firearm background checks. Rhode Island currently doesn’t share mental health information with the federal background check system.
For lawmakers who wanted to see the state take stronger steps to curb gun violence, it was a lost opportunity. Lawmakers in Colorado, New York and Connecticut enacted tougher gun laws following mass shootings last year at a suburban Denver movie theater and the massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
After the Connecticut rampage in December, gun control supporters in Rhode Island held rallies at the Statehouse to call on lawmakers to enact the assault weapons ban. The Newtown police chief traveled to the Statehouse to testify in support.
But the momentum quickly dissipated.
“I was deeply disappointed,” said House Rep. Teresa Tanzi, D-South Kingstown. “I know there’s more that can be done. But the sad truth is tragedy happens, people are motivated, but people’s lives go on.”
In response to the proposals, gun rights supporters held rallies of their own that attracted thousands to the Statehouse to protest what they said were politically motivated attempts to take away their 2nd Amendment rights. Many lawmakers agreed.
The bills that did pass attracted support from both sides and was pushed through nearly unanimously. Rep. Mike Chippendale, R-Foster, one of the leading opponents of the proposed ban on assault weapons, said he was pleased both sides were able to work together to create proposals that didn’t infringe on gun owners’ rights. He said the more ambitious gun control proposals wouldn’t have stopped gun crime or prevented another massacre.
He singled out the legislation to study mental health records and background checks as an example of legislation that could one day prevent a shooting rampage like the one in Newtown.
“Here we are, getting to the root of what we’ve been seeing tragically across this nation,” he said, noting that mental illness is “the one common factor that we’ve seen over and over again.”
Fox, who joined Chafee, Kilmartin and Paiva Weed to announce the gun control package in April, said at the time that the Newtown massacre was a “wakeup call for all of us” and that the gun control bills would help prevent another rampage and daily acts of gun violence seen on urban streets.
On Wednesday, after the 2013 session ended without votes on most of the package, Fox was succinct.
“We passed what we could,” he said.
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