In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings, the Rhode Island General Assembly is considering a package of bills intended to tighten the state’s gun laws, including restrictions on assault weapons and harsher penalties for gun violations.
WPRI’s "Newsmakers" explored the topic on a program featuring state Rep. Linda D. Finn, D-Middletown, who has argued for more gun restrictions, and state Rep. Michael W. Chippendale, R-Foster, who has argued that laws already in place can address concerns if only they were properly enforced.
At one point, Tim White, the show’s host, brought up one of the proposed bills, which would make it illegal for anyone under 18 to possess a gun, aside from exceptions such as hunting, rifle ranges and competitive target shooting.
Chippendale called the proposal "well intended, but poorly drafted," saying it would contradict another law on the books that provides for licensed hunting by young people.
Finn countered that the proposal is intended for police on the streets of Providence and other cities when they come upon a minor with a firearm.
"Because right now, if they [the police] come across a [young] person with a gun, they really don't legally have the right to take it away from them," Finn said.
We wondered whether Finn’s statement was accurate.
The statute currently says "possession and use" of certain firearms by someone under age 18 is prohibited in Rhode Island unless he or she has had a permit issued -- under 11-47-34 -- by the Rhode Island State Police or by a local police chief. And that permit can only be issued, the law states, "upon satisfactory proof of being engaged in a course of training in the use of firearms at a regular and recognized camp or rifle range, and provided that the person has the written consent of a guardian."
The bill in the legislature calls for dropping the words "and use" from 11-47-33.
The reason? According to Amy Kempe, spokeswoman for state Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin’s office, the bill was filed because "currently, for a minor to be guilty of possession of a firearm they must possess and use the firearm."
Steven M. Pare, the Providence public safety commissioner, said police chiefs support the revision of statute 11-47-33 that would remove the words "and use," making it illegal in most cases for juveniles simply to possess a firearm.
Despite Finn’s assertion the the police can’t take guns away from minors, Pare, said that police can and do charge young people with possession of handguns, using another statute, 11-47-8, which prohibits minors from obtaining a carry/conceal permit.
But there’s another issue in current law, that gives some credence to Finn’s claim.
The Attorney General’s office says that due to what it calls a loophole, the law does not cover shotguns, rifles and other long guns, Kempe said, which could include such weapons as an AK-47, AR-15 and an M-16 -- so long as those are not fully automatic. (Possession of automatic weapons is illegal in all cases.)
In other words, if the police see a juvenile carrying such a weapon, they can’t confiscate it under current law.
Kempe said the "long guns" at issue are rarely something the police encounter on the streets involving minors; pistols and revolvers, which are already covered under current law and for which the police can arrest and seize the guns, are much more common, she said.
State Rep. Linda D. Finn said that if the police come across a young person with a gun, "they really don't legally have the right to take it away from them."
Under current law, police can seize handguns from juveniles, the weapons most commonly used in street crime. But they can’t seize rifles and other so-called long guns.
New legislation could change that.
But for now, we rate Finn’s claim Half True.
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