A new assault weapon ban will be introduced this session. Will it finally pass?

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PROVIDENCE − "Think about the places you frequent: Your grocery store, your children’s schools, your places of worship, your favorite club/dance hall, your workplace, your local movie theater, your own front porch.

"Frequenting these places should NOT be a death sentence for you and your loved ones," Sydney Montstream-Quas, chairwoman of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence board, said Tuesday at a packed State House event for advocates to celebrate the reintroduction of a proposed assault weapons ban.

In his State of the State address early this month, Gov. Dan McKee hailed passage of the bill as one of his top priorities for the year. The House sponsor, Jason Knight, said he already has 41 co-sponsors for his version of the bill in the 75-member House. The Senate sponsor, Joshua Miller, was just starting to collect signatures.

State of the State:Gov. Dan McKee, in State of the State address, promises sales tax cut, school aid boost

The governor sat side-by-side in the State Room with the lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general and treasurer. They each had turns at the microphone saying, in effect: it's time.

In a related development, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline announced plans to reintroduce a federal Assault Weapons Ban on Wednesday.

Rhode Island lawmakers have failed to pass an assault weapon ban

In her turn at the microphone, Montstream-Quas said the number of mass shootings in the first month of 2023 was not quite 50 when she went to bed. When she woke up, she said it was 52.

"What are we waiting for?" she asked.

But it remains to be seen if this will be the year the long-debated ban finally becomes law in Rhode Island, where gun control laws − including most recently, a ban on large-capacity gun magazines − have made incremental progress despite the full-throated opposition of gun-rights advocates, who turn out by the hundreds in yellow "Don't Tread On Me" T-shirts.

More on the high capacity magazine ban:Here's how Rhode Island gun owners are complying with the new high-capacity magazine ban

One floor down from the governor's suite, Republican Sen. Jessica de la Cruz of North Smithfield, the Senate minority leader, said she has no doubt that advocates for the assault-weapons ban "have good intentions," but she believes Rhode Island lawmakers have year after year infringed on the "clear" meaning of the Second Amendment.

"We need to enforce the laws we currently have," she said.

But Attorney General Peter Neronha cited case after case as evidence of the ever-present risk, including one high-profile case where a gun hoarder had "eight ghost AR-15s," meaning they were fabricated without traceable marks, including serial numbers.

More on ghost guns:What are ghost guns? Police say they pose a growing threat in Rhode Island.

Other recent examples: the firearms and assault charges lodged against Luis Roman for "shooting at a Providence police officer with a AR-15-style ghost gun" and the sentencing of Jayquan Parker to 10 years in prison for shooting an assault rifle from an SUV into a parked car across the street from Payne Park in Pawtucket.

"The political will is in this room," Neronha said.

Aside from the legislative sponsors, there were no legislative leaders in the State Room for the news conference.

Both chambers noncommittal on the fate of the assault weapon bill

When asked about the prospects for the legislation, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio sent this noncommittal answer: “Like all legislation that comes before the Senate, this proposal will receive an extensive review through the committee process.”

On the House side, Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi said he is keeping an open mind, and "a public hearing will be scheduled."

Past debates have become mired in fights over what constitutes an "assault weapon," with gun-rights advocates contending that the proposed language is so broad it would apply to some of the most popular firearms favored by law-abiding citizens.

The newly introduced House version of the proposed ban is now online: H5300.

Knight, the lead House sponsor, told The Journal a "close review" of earlier versions resulted in a number of changes.

They include what he described as a clearer exemption for law enforcement, active and retired; some re-worked definitions to address some known work-arounds to assault weapons bans in other states; and the removal of "civil liability" for someone who legally owns a grandfathered - and properly registered - "assault weapon" that may fall into the hands of someone else who used it to commit a crime.

"It's a combination of mental health issues. It's a combination of access to weapons that don't belong on the street," McKee told reporters after the press conference.

Asked what might move the dime this year, McKee repeated an argument made earlier by one of the speakers: that the 2022 election was, in effect, the only poll that counts and one in which gun-control candidates − including the former leader of the "Moms Demand Action" affiliate in Rhode Island − won seats in the legislature.

The gun debate took flight late in last year's session after back-to-back massacres by lone gunmen.

A gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in rural Texas on May 27. Less than two weeks earlier, 10 people were killed and three wounded in a mass shooting at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store.

The Senate president, Ruggerio, was among the National Rifle Association's "A" ranked lawmakers who came around after those massacres, telling The Journal after passage of the large-capacity magazine ban: "I'd be horrified if something ever happened to my grandchildren because of something like that and I stood by and did nothing."

But the companion bill to ban "assault weapons" did not move.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Assault-weapon ban in RI is part of new bill coming to the legislature