RI gun control debate focusing on mental illness

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — After last year’s shooting massacre in Newtown, Conn., Kim Ziegelmayer and several other Rhode Island women decided it was time to push for tougher gun laws in Rhode Island. Despite support from virtually all the state’s top leaders, their efforts failed.

Now, in the wake of a deadly shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard, Ziegelmayer hopes to try again — but she’s realistic about her chances, even in a state where Democrats control state government and where calls to ban semi-automatic firearms won the support of the governor, the mayor of Providence, top state lawmakers and the state’s attorney general.

“These awful things continue to happen and nothing changes,” said Ziegelmayer, a mother of two from Smithfield. “I really believe that gun violence has become so normalized in our society. It’s become: ‘Oh, those things happen.'”

Similar proposals were introduced in statehouses around the country last year, and lawmakers in Colorado, New York and Connecticut enacted tougher gun laws following mass shootings last year at a suburban Denver movie theater and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

But most of the gun control measures around the nation didn’t pass, and supporters of those that did in New York and Colorado faced a backlash. This month, two Colorado lawmakers who backed stricter gun measures were ousted by voters.

Critics of the proposals say their failures show that lawmakers — and much of the public — recognize that new laws restricting gun ownership won’t prevent mass shootings. State Rep. Michael Chippendale notes the Navy Yard shooting occurred in a city that has some of the nation’s toughest gun laws.

“None of the bills that were proposed would have prevented anything like a Newtown or anything like this Washington episode,” said Chippendale, R-Foster. “These bills were not aimed at the problem.”

Legislators are now focusing on ways to prevent people with potentially violent mental illnesses from accessing firearms. A state task force will soon begin reviewing the use of mental health records in gun background checks. Rhode Island doesn’t share its mental health records with the federal background check system used to screen prospective gun buyers.

The task force was one of the few gun-related bills to pass the General Assembly this year, along with legislation that increased jail time for carrying a stolen firearm while committing a violent crime and prohibited the possession of a gun with a destroyed serial number.

State leaders had wanted to go a lot further. Early in the session, House Speaker Gordon Fox, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Attorney General Peter Kilmartin — all Democrats — unveiled the proposed ban on semi-automatics as well as proposals to ban high-capacity magazines.

The proposals never made it to a vote following large gatherings of gun-rights supporters at the Statehouse.

Those who would like to see more significant changes to state gun laws said they’ll try again when the General Assembly convenes in January. Rep. Teresa Tanzi, D-South Kingstown, said she’d like lawmakers to look at ways to track the illegal flow of weapons.

“We need to look at this as we would some other epidemic,” she said. “If there was an outbreak of flu, the Department of Health would be monitoring its spread. We should do something similar for gun violence. We can’t keep putting Band-Aids on the problem.”

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