PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The Newtown massacre is giving fresh momentum to efforts to strengthen firearm laws in Rhode Island, with local leaders calling for a state ban on semi-automatic weapons and legislators vowing to look at gun access, mental health screening and other policies that might curb violence.
The push has gun rights supporters on a quiet defensive, determined to protect their right to bear arms while acknowledging that the slaughter in next-door Connecticut has made an already delicate political debate especially sensitive.
State Rep. Teresa Tanzi is one of those at the center of the debate. The South Kingstown Democrat said she was interested in tightening gun laws even before the Newtown shooting. She’s now talking with other lawmakers and state officials about crafting comprehensive changes to state laws. Tanzi said she'd like to see a ban on high-capacity magazines and assault rifles like the one used to deadly effect in Newtown, in which 20 children and six educators were gunned down by a man who also killed his mother and himself.
‘‘When something is designed as a killing machine for people, I don’t see much civilian application for that,’’ Tanzi said.
State Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, said he and other gun rights supporters expected to see advocates for tighter rules seize on the Newtown tragedy to push their agenda. He said he hopes the conversation expected to play out over the 2013 legislative session stays constructive and inclusive.
‘‘Knee-jerk reactions are not going to solve any problems,’’ he said. ‘‘We cannot sacrifice our rights.’’
Rhode Island’s neighbors, Massachusetts and Connecticut, both have tighter restrictions on gun ownership. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a supporter of strengthening gun laws, gives Rhode Island a C-plus for its laws. Connecticut scores a B and Massachusetts, with some of the toughest gun laws in the nation, gets an A-minus. The organization puts all three states in its list of the 10 states with the strongest gun laws, and note that all three also are among the 10 states with the fewest gun death rates.
Still, there’s a growing insistence by local and state leaders that more should be done.
Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, already a member of the national coalition Mayors Against Illegal Guns, has called for gun buybacks to offer gun owners an incentive to eliminate weapons. The Providence City Council recently endorsed a resolution calling on the General Assembly to pass a ban on semi-automatic weapons.
Critics of the state’s gun rules say the state should also do a better job of reporting its mental health information to other states to prevent mentally ill Rhode Islanders from buying a gun in a neighboring state.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, said he participated in a wide-ranging conference call with other governors and Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday in which several responses to gun violence were discussed. He said ideas included working with Hollywood to limit violence in television and movies to better sharing of state information about gun permits and background checks. Chafee supported the failed effort to reauthorize the federal assault weapons ban as a member of the U.S. Senate in 2004.
Top state lawmakers have also signaled an interest in taking up gun control this year. House Speaker Gordon Fox listed gun laws as one of his top priorities in a speech he delivered moments after being re-elected to his position on the first day of the 2013 session.
‘‘After the horrific tragedy in Newtown, Conn., we must redouble our efforts to be certain that our schools and public places are safe and secure,’’ the Providence Democrat said.
Opponents of changes to gun laws are keeping a low profile. While the National Rifle Association has a paid lobbyist for the state, neither the organization nor the lobbyist returned messages seeking comment.
Woonsocket gun store owner Paul Connolly said business is good at his shop following the Newtown shooting. He said his customers are worried gun-control advocates will use the tragedy to further their agenda. He notes that the 1994-2004 federal assault weapons ban failed to prevent the Columbine massacre.
‘‘The only people who obey laws are good people,’’ he said. ‘‘The bad guys don’t care what you ban.’’
Connolly says state and federal officials should instead focus on preventing criminals and the mentally ill from buying weapons. Right now, Rhode Island is one of four states that doesn’t report its records to a national database used in background checks.
Likewise, Chippendale wants the state to examine its mental health programs to ensure they’re robust enough to help ill people before a tragedy like the one in Newtown. He said that as a father himself he wants to do whatever he can to prevent gun violence, but that mental health resources might be more effective than gun laws that can be ignored by criminals or the mentally ill.
After all, the tragedy in Connecticut occurred in a state that’s considered to have some of the strictest gun laws in the nation.
‘‘We have a dire need to look at the services for mental health and give those folks (mental health professionals) the tools they need,’’ he said. ‘‘Our system is overloaded. We need more people, money and better laws. That’s what I'd like to see us focus on.’’
Tanzi, who supports tougher firearm restrictions, agreed. But she warned finding funding for better mental health programs could be more politically challenging than strengthening gun laws.
‘‘Tackling the mental health issue is going to be the really difficult thing,’’ she said. ‘‘Because it costs money.’’