Nearly 500 people packed the Rhode Island State House rotunda Tuesday for a rally celebrating the introduction of a bill banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines. They filled the stairs and the second-floor hallways, dangled banners over railings, and cheered the legislators and high school students who urged the general assembly to take action.
The legislation, S2493, which was introduced by Sen. Josh Miller (D-28) and Rep. Jason Knight (D-67) with 18 sponsors in the Senate and 29 in the House, bans the purchase, possession, manufacture, or sale of any semi-automatic assault weapon and limits magazines to 10 rounds. The bill contains detailed descriptions of what constitutes an assault weapon, and includes a list of specific guns that are banned, including the AR-15. The act grandfathers current owners and exempts law enforcement officers.
The Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence (RICAGV) organized the rally. “We know that our neighbor Massachusetts bans these weapons of war,” said RICAGV president Linda Finn. “We know that Connecticut bans these weapons of war. We know New York bans them. Why do we sell them to 18-year-olds?”
Gov. Gina Raimondo complimented the General Assembly on last year’s bill taking guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, and called on them to take action on assault weapons in this session. “They are called military-style weapons because they belong in the military,” Raimondo said. “These are weapons designed to kill as many people, as fast as possible, and there is no place for them in our schools, in our communities, in our churches, in our libraries. Do the right thing. Pass that law.”
The legislation had been drafted before the Parkland attack. “Enough was enough long before Florida,” Sen. Miller said.
He noted that he’d introduced similar bills every year since 2007, but said that what made it different this time was having a powerful new group of advocates. “The most effective are the children, not only from Florida, but the children from Rhode Island. You can’t ignore those voices. The first responders that are here. The mayors that are here. The parents that are here. This is a large chorus that cannot be denied.”
“Mass shootings are depressingly more common,” said Knight. “The weapon of choice for many of those shooters is an assault rifle. My goal is to put daylight between the potential mass shooter and his or her ability to obtain an assault rifle in Rhode Island.”
Taliq Tillman, from the Met School, talked about watching coverage of the Parkland shooting on TV. “I was a witness to something that had become all too familiar, and there I was, sending my thoughts and prayers yet again. Again and again, our schools become crime scenes and hunting grounds. There’s nothing more debilitating than being a witness and sitting idly by. I speak for myself and my generation when I say, ‘Enough is enough.'” When Tillman was done, the entire rotunda began chanting, “Enough is enough.”
“We feel that now, more than ever, our voices deserve to be heard,” said Adah Bryan, a freshman student organizer at Classical High School. She explained how students in Providence schools had walked out on Friday, Feb 23, an act that put them in the Providence Journal — and the crosshairs of those opposed to gun regulation. “We’re being called pawns, puppets, even child actors. [They say] we’re too young to make our own choices, our own opinions, too young to know what we’re talking about. I am not a pawn. We are not pawns,” she said. “How many lives will our lack of laws take before we take action. Don’t let us be the next Parkland, the next Sandy Hook, the next Columbine.”
Osiris Cortez, also student organizer at Classical, said, “When we walked out of high school, it was not to be rebellious teens, but to have our voices heard in this most crucial discussion. This bill is the first step to curing gun violence and to bring change to Rhode Island. We, Rhode Island, are one of seven states that have not had a mass shooting. Let’s keep it that way.”
The rally broke up amid loud, sustained applause for the students.
Asked about his reaction, Knight told a reporter, “The kids speak the truth, and it’s on the adults to listen. What they’re saying, it’s coming from the heart, and they bring new eyes to the situation. And sometimes, bringing that new and fresh perspective is enough to open up, unseal the eyes of people who have been around longer.”
RICAGV organizer Linda Finn told a reporter, “I almost started crying; those kids were so eloquent. I know they’re working really hard. They need to make a difference, and they are.”
A reporter caught up with Sen. Jim Seveney (D-11), who had just finished signing on to the bill. “Seems like we’re at a tipping point,” he said. “It took these high school kids to explain to us what common sense looks like.”