Hundreds of people came to the Rhode Island Statehouse Tuesday to testify for and against a series of gun-related bills.
The line to enter the Capitol was so long that it snaked down Smith Street ahead of hearings by the House and Senate Judiciary committees. Votes on the bills are not expected until later in the legislative session, although the outpouring reflects the strong views on both sides of the issue. More than a thousand people came to the Capitol to make their feelings known.
Julia Wyman of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence was among those calling for the state to ban semiautomatic rifles like the AR-15. She said the harm caused by the weapons in mass shootings justifies a bill to outlaw them like in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
"We have to weigh the benefit of being able to use a sporting rifle and for the gun lobby to make a profit against the risk that people and society are walking around fearful to be their schools, fearful to be in public places," Wyman told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Gun rights supporters pushed back by predicting new restrictions would have little effect. They say that law-abiding gun owners are not the problem, and that people bent on violence don’t heed new or existing laws.
The pro-gun forces had a far stronger showing, with many of their members wearing yellow T-shirts. Some milled around an overflow area created in the Statehouse rotunda or watched a television with a live broadcast of the Senate hearing.
Past and present lawmakers called the turnout the largest they could recall at the Statehouse.
The General Assembly is considering a series of new restrictions on guns in the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last month. The proposals include a 'red flag' measure meant to remove guns from people who might pose a danger, banning devices to make guns fire more rapidly, and raising the age to be able to buy a rifle from 18 to 21.
Frank Saccoccio, president of the Rhode Island 2nd Amendment Coalition, was among those testifying against much of the legislation. He said creating gun-free zones is foolhardy in an era of mass shootings.
Some communities, he said, are "putting in on their web site that this particular town or that particular town has now passed a resolution to say, we don’t want any guns in our school. Why don’t you just put a big flag out there and say we’re not going to have any security in our schools? It’s absolutely terrible.”
One lawmaker, Sen. Stephen Archambault (D-Smithfield) called for raising the focus on mental health screening.
Meanwhile, Jamestown Police Chief Edward Mello lamented some of the limitations faced by police in attempting to curb the threat of gun violence.
Mello said he was contacted recently by a woman with a 19-year-old son who has been in and out of mental health facilities. She thought her son was prohibited from being able to buy a gun.
"The reality is he can walk in today and buy a firearm," Mello said. "That's a concern. It's a mom who's terrified who has a family history of suicide in her family by firearms. You can imagine her fear when I told her that."
This post has been updated.