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Are existing gun laws being enforced in RI? New report provides answers

·5 min read

PROVIDENCE — Amid the heated State House debate this past week over the need for any new gun laws — including a proposed "assault weapons" ban — gun-rights advocates repeatedly questioned how vigorously the attorney general and the courts are enforcing existing laws.

"There is no need to burden law-abiding citizens with new restrictive gun laws,'' Alex Aubin wrote to state lawmakers on the first of two days of marathon House and Senate hearings.

"We need only to enforce the laws already on the books to see a decrease in crime," he wrote. "Stop giving criminals a slap on the wrist and let them know there are real consequences in this state for using a firearm illegally."

In response to arguments such as these, state lawmakers required — and Attorney General Peter Neronha on Thursday once again produced — a once-a-year rundown on gun crimes across the state.

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The state court system provided The Journal with its own report on the 116 "extreme risk protection orders" that state and local police have requested since 2018 to at least temporarily remove firearms from individuals believed to be at "imminent risk" of killing themselves or others.

A single police department — the Cranston police — filed 42 of the 116 petitions for extreme risk protection orders, since the passage of Rhode Island's "Red Flag" law in June 2018.

The two reports paint a picture of a state where guns posed significant dangers

The report Neronha made public on Thursday goes further than current state law requires, out of his previously stated concerns about presenting an "incomplete picture'' that does not adequately reflect "the prevalence of guns and gun violence in our communities, as well as the criminal justice system’s efforts and ability to hold perpetrators accountable."

In the cover letter he sent to House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, Neronha wrote: "At this point, I hope there can be no question regarding the prevalence of guns and gun violence in Rhode Island, and no question regarding how seriously this Office takes these cases."

For example: "In May 2021, nine people were wounded in the City of Providence’s largest mass shooting in history. Investigators seized over 500 rounds of ammunition in various calibers as well as 12 pistol and rifle magazines, four of which were large-capacity magazines able to hold over 30 rounds.

"In November of 2021, our Office announced the indictment of six individuals in connection with this shooting."

Neronha also cited these examples of 2021 gun crimes:

*The July of 2021 arraignment of multiple individuals on drug trafficking and firearms charges."

One has been sentenced already to eight years in prison.

Along the way, "investigators seized a 40-caliber ghost gun with a 30-round magazine containing 23 rounds and a laser attachment, and a 9mm Smith and Wesson semi-automatic pistol with an obliterated serial number, along with over 1,500 fentanyl pills."

• In November 2021, two individuals were charged with 36 felony counts stemming from an illegal firearms trafficking investigation.

"As part of the investigation, investigators seized multiple illegal firearms, including: a Polymer80 9mm semi-automatic ghost gun with a 30-round large capacity magazine ... several hundred rounds of various types of ammunition and firearms parts.

"They were also charged with selling at least an additional six firearms to six individuals, including to those who are legally prohibited from possessing firearms."

• In December 2021, two individuals were charged with multiple drug and firearms offenses. "Investigators seized 8 firearms — two assault rifles, a shotgun and five handguns — along with thousands of rounds of ammunition."

Since lawmakers outlawed "ghost guns," Neronha stated, prosecutors have seen a "significant amount of ghost guns associated with violent crime in Rhode Island, as they are sought out more and more by those who are otherwise prohibited from lawfully possessing guns in Rhode Island.

"In fact," he stated, "our Office has charged 77 cases pursuant to this legislation since it became law in 2020."

Among the results so far — a four-year prison sentence handed down in May 2021 to a Cranston drug dealer who possessed a ghost gun and large-capacity magazine.

RI Attorney General's gun crime report

The attorney general provided these statistics:

When calendar year 2021 began, 519 gun-crime cases were pending for lack of final action. By the time it ended, another 502 gun cases had been filed, the vast majority, 424, in Providence County.

Of the 340 cases that were wrapped up last year, roughly 46% ended with jail sentences.

Only three went to a jury or bench trial during the pandemic year; 284 ended with pleas.

Of those people sent to prison, five were sentenced to 10 or more years for the most serious crimes, 37 were sentenced to five to 10 years and others for less than five years. Another 70 were given suspended sentences and 49 received deferred sentences.

In another 51 cases, the charges were dismissed or defendants were found not guilty.

"Most, if not all, dismissals occur for one or more of the following reasons," Neronha said. "The defendant has pleaded guilty to a charge more serious than a firearms charge [e.g., murder, first-degree robbery] and received a more serious sentence in consideration of dismissal of the firearms charge. ... The victim is unwilling or unavailable to testify, and their testimony is necessary to meet our burden of proof; or the Court suppresses evidence necessary to meet our burden of proof."

Neronha also added this caveat: The numbers reflect only those cases in Providence and Bristol counties to which a "G" has been appended to the case number, denoting the case in the statewide judicial information system — in other words, cases referred to the Superior Court's "gun court."

He said many of the most serious cases involving firearms — involving people out on bail or probation for a previous offense — are often placed on a different calendar.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: RI gun laws: New report provides some answers about enforcement