As the nation reels from another mass shooting, the first appointments have been made to a legislative task force created earlier this year to address ways for Rhode Island to balance firearms safety and behavioral health.
Created by legislation (2013-H 5992A, 2013-S 862B) sponsored by Rep. Deborah Ruggiero and Sen. Catherine Cool Rumsey, the task force is a key element of the package of legislation introduced this year in the General Assembly to address gun safety following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The 20-member task force is to weigh the rights of those with behavioral health problems to own guns with the risks. The panel is to conduct a review of current law and make recommendations on legislation to improve public safety by developing a more comprehensive approach addressing the nexus between behavioral health and firearms safety.
This week House Speaker Gordon D. Fox and President of the Senate M. Teresa Paiva Weed announced their appointments to the task force. The bill’s sponsors, Representative Ruggiero (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown) and Senator Cool Rumsey (D-Dist. 34, Exeter, Charlestown, Hopkinton, Richmond, West Greenwich), have been appointed as the task force’s co-chairwomen.
Coventry Rep. Michael W. Chippendale was among the 20 individuals chosen to work towards better gun safety standards in Rhode Island.
In addition, Senate President Paiva Weed also appointed Sen. Frank S. Lombardi (D-Dist. 26, Cranston), Sen. Christopher Scott Ottiano (R-Dist. 11 Portsmouth, Bristol), Rhode Island Council of Community Mental Health Organizations President/CEO Craig M. Syata and Frank Saccoccio of the Federated Rhode Island Sportsmen’s Club. Speaker Fox appointed Rep. Elaine A. Coderre (D-Dist. 60,Pawtucket), Drug and Alcohol Treatment Association of Rhode Island Executive Director David Spencer and Dennis Etchells, president of the Federated Rhode Island Sportsmen’s Club.
Three additional members, including one more representative of the Federated Rhode Island Sportsmen’s Club, are expect to be appointed by the governor soon. Also on the task force, as stipulated in the bill, are the attorney general; the state court administrator, the director of the Department of Public Safety, the director of the Department of Environmental Management, the Director of the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, the President of the Police Chiefs’ Association, and the Mental Health Advocate or their designees.
The legislation originally stipulated that the task force is to report back to the governor and General Assembly before Jan. 1, 2014, however the co-chairwomen have indicated that they expect that deadline will be extended, as is common practice for special legislative panels, to allow more time for this important work. The task force is expected to begin meeting sometime in the coming weeks.
In addition to finding a balance between individuals’ right to bear arms with the public’s right to safety in light of mass shootings carried out by people with a history of mental illness, the task force is also to consider the state’s full participation in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). While Rhode Island does require a NICS check for all gun sales, it does not contribute substance abuse or mental health information to the system. The legislation requires the panel to conduct a review of different states’ approaches for compliance with the NICS Index.
“Balancing public safety with individual rights, especially with respect to those with a history of behavioral health issues, is a very delicate issue that deserves thoughtful examination. While a behavioral health history is by no means an indication that a person is going to do something violent if they have a gun, we need to carefully consider whether our laws should have some means of preventing gun violence by those who do show signs of violent tendencies,” said Representative Ruggiero.
Said Senator Cool Rumsey, “On one hand, if we do nothing, we are surrendering more innocent victims to violence at the hands of people who need help. On the other, if we go looking for a quick fix, we are going to wind up infringing upon the rights of other gun owners who aren’t part of the problem. We want to come up with changes that will succeed without overreaching, so we need to do be careful and deliberate.”