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By Natalie Villacorta
By Natalie Villacorta
Rhode Island is preparing for the next phase of its gun-safety debate. Created by the General Assembly this past session, the Gun Safety Task Force will examine the issues impacting the general public, but also gun owners and dealers.
State Rep. Deb Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, should prove to be a key voice in that debate after being named co-chair of the 20-member board.
PBN: What prompted the creation of the task force?
RUGGIERO: The Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut was a wake-up call for everyone in the nation because innocent 5 and 6 year old children and their teachers were murdered. So, the General Assembly working with Governor’s office, the Attorney General’s office, and mental health officials started looking at our firearms laws and mental health procedures and how we can better identify people who are harmful to themselves and others. The Behavioral Health and Firearms Safety Task Force bill was drafted, which I sponsored in the House and Senator Catherine Cool Rumsey in the Senate, and passed into law this past legislative session.
PBN: What has the task force been tasked with accomplishing?
RUGGIERO: The Task Force will review the state’s approach and compliance with NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System). We’ll hear testimony and weigh public safety with gun ownership and mental health issues. Right now, RI reports national and local criminal background checks to NICS but not mental health records. We have to be careful because RI mental health privacy standards are even higher than HIPPA. So, it’s really important that the mental health community is at the table, and they are, because we don’t want any unintended consequences of discouraging someone from seeking mental health treatment. When the bill was debated on the House floor on June 26th, my Republican colleagues commended the inclusiveness and need for this task force and it overwhelmingly passed. This 20 member panel includes the Mental Health Advocate, Drug and Alcohol Treatment Association of Rhode Island, president of RI Police Chief’s Association, 3 members of the Federated Sportsman’s Club representing gun owners, my Republican colleague Rep. Michael Chippendale and Senate colleagues, to name just a few. We’ll review the standards that Rhode Island now has, look at other state’s best practices and how we may want to change to conform to national standards.
PBN: What’s the biggest challenge facing the task force? How do you balance an individual’s right to bear arms with public safety?
RUGGIERO: Balancing public safety with individual rights, especially with respect to those with a history of mental health issues, is a very delicate issue that deserves thoughtful examination. A mental health diagnosis is not a predictor of violence, but we need to consider whether our current laws should have a means of preventing gun violence if someone shows signs of violent tendencies. Gun ownership is protected by the 2nd Amendment, but with those rights come responsibilities. It’s an important conversation to have and it needs to be done in open, public hearings so we all can benefit from the education and information. I’m looking forward to learning – we don’t know what we don’t know!
PBN: What are the next legislative steps?
RUGGIERO: The committee process is to hold public hearings with testimony from experts. We need to consider any changes and craft policy in a deliberate and thoughtful way, representing the needs of all Rhode Islanders. The Task Force will begin meeting early October and we’ll report our findings to the governor and General Assembly by mid-session and extend any arbitrary reporting deadlines in order to create good public policy.
PBN: What can concerned members of the community do?
RUGGIERO: Participate in the conversation, ask questions, and listen with an open mind and an open heart. Keep in mind, Rhode Island is in the nation for its strong gun laws and requires back ground checks even at gun shows. The highest percentage of people who own guns are law abiding citizens who will never randomly fire their weapon on another human being. This is a delicate balance of gun ownership, mental health issues, and public safety.