On Monday October 30th at 1:45PM the Governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, signed the Protect Rhode Island Families Act into Law. The act itself aims to prevent domestic abusers from obtaining guns.
This victory was the product of several years of lobbying efforts and legislative work by allies in the state house and senate. Groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety, the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, and, most notably, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America all provided support in ensuring that this “common sense” legislation was passed. It has been noted by many that a strong civil society leads to a successful liberal democracy. This case, and the actions of Moms Demand Action for Gun sense in America, exemplifies how important an active citizenry is to the success of democratic institutions.
A sea of red t-shirts filled the State Room of the Rhode Island State House, a room adjacent to the Governor’s Office. On their backs’ read “Mom’s Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.” Many notable Rhode Islanders – such as a member of the Brown affiliated Magaziner family and politicians like Mayor Jorge Elorza – were present. This made the room feel more akin to a campaign meet-and-greet than a hard-fought legislative victory. Once Governor Raimondo entered the State Room, she was met with overwhelming applause. The following series of speakers ranged from personal testimony and gratitude from survivors to declarations of success and relief from noteworthy legislators.
The Protect Rhode Island Families Act, a bill sponsored by Representative Teresa Tanzi in the House (Along with Representatives Amore, Fogarty, Ruggiero, and Maldonado) and Senator Harold M. Metts in the Senate, requires those “convicted of a crime of domestic violence and anyone subject to a domestic abuse protective order to surrender any firearms they have, and would prohibit them from acquiring more.” Additionally, it requires all those subject to the order to turn in their firearms within 24 hours of their being given notice. This law brings Rhode Island closer to standards set by the Federal Government. For many years it has been illegal for domestic abusers to have possession of firearms. However, Rhode Island law has not forced them to turn weapons in. In fact, only five percent of final protective orders have resulted in ordered gun returns.
While this new action has been lauded as a major victory for gun safety, for many it is not nearly enough. Campaigns for gun control have been met with heavy resistance nationally. In fact, between January of 2011 and June of 2016, over 100 gun laws were proposed to federal congress. However, hardly any made it onto the senate or house floor, and not one of them was signed into law. Governor Raimondo herself said that while she was excited to sign this bill, “there’s more to do. Let’s take this and keep going,” She said. “Let’s take this and have national common sense gun reform. Let’s take this and ban military style weapons, like many of our neighbors have done.”
This statement was received with immediate applause. Notably, Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello remained still and silent. When he spoke he asserted, “I don’t view this as a gun bill, I view this as a domestic violence bill.”
The event ultimately symbolized a success for Rhode Island democracy. This bill took three years to pass through the Rhode Island congress. It was not unanimously endorsed but it did ultimately garner bipartisan support. The final bill ultimately passed through the senate on June 30th, 2017, with 30 Democratic and 3 Republican Yea votes, 2 Republican Nay votes, and 2 Democratic “other” votes. It passed through the House on September 19th and was signed by the Governor on October 30th.
Gun Control has been, and will continue to be, a subject of soreness for the American people. For many, the right to possess a gun is a constitutional certainty; for others it’s an outdated law based on previous circumstance and poorer historical weapons engineering. This issue has led to some of the most heated debates and some of the widest ideological polarization in this country.
Many see this polarization as a sign of the erosion of democracy. To others the drawl of policy change, on account of disagreement, is a symbol of democracy at work. Ultimately, plurality of opinion is necessary to the function of American liberal democracy, as it has been established. I see the passing of this bill as an encouraging example of the potential for success of peaceful and consistent resistance. Most policy debate in the US is long and arduous. This was no exception. However, after years of action by key members of the house and senate of Rhode Island, by RI’s Moms Demand Action, and by other lobbying contingencies, this bill was signed into law and finally can help protect some of the most vulnerable members of our community.
I agree, this is a great stride for democracy, but as you pointed out, it is not enough. Following the catastrophe Sandy Hook,Connecticut, a neighboring state like Rhode Island is a good place to start with tighter state legislation on gun control. However, it is saddening to see those states who are more geographically detached lagging on their policy.
Though the RI bill did, as you say, receive support from Republicans as well as from Democrats, it is noteworthy how polarized this issue of gun control has been in the past for the US. I recently wrote an article for this blog that examined the role of the NRA in our lack of gun control. Through some reading, I came to realize that the NRA operates on a consistent resistance to further control, which makes them less vulnerable when tragedies like Sandy Hook or Las Vegas occur because they have already organized rebuttals that point the shooting at something other than guns. Though this may seem obvious, it is important to remember when analyzing how poor our efforts to pass stricter gun control have been in the past.
A recent John Oliver special on the NRA noted that we must beat them at their own game by not forgetting how pertinent stricter gun control laws are to avoiding another tragedy. Too often, resistance dies down after a week or so post mass shooting, because it is no longer “today’s news,” and because we have become far too desensitized to these incidents. But we must continue to reiterate that these are good, strong American citizens of all creeds and colors dying at a hand that should have no way of holding a gun in the first place. It can be easy to forget these circumstances when we are across the country. But it is all too soon when the incident hits too close to home, or worse; hits home itself.
Another important point you touch upon in your post is in how different parties and peoples view gun control and its effects on democracy. Many Americans believe that this is the best and only way to further try and prevent mass shootings, while others consider gun control to be an infringement on basic freedoms, which certainly can be seen as a sign of democratic backsliding. I think it is paramount to look at gun control as a way of saving lives and preventing horrible tragedies before considering the implications it may have on hunting vacations. I also think gun control legislators need to emphasize that the bills they are putting forward should have little to no effect on those gun carriers who DO carry legally, and who use their guns responsibly. Without this appeal to what is—whether you agree in principle or not—a valid concern of those who believe strongly in the right to bear arms, tighter gun control legislation won’t have a chance in states who hold on more tightly to their interpretation of the Second Amendment.