Gun control debate heating up in RI

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- A debate over gun control prompted by the Newtown school massacre in Connecticut is heating up in Rhode Island, where gun rights supporters plan to rally this week in opposition to a proposed ban on the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons and change in the way handgun permits are awarded.

Last week a Senate hearing on the legislation attracted hundreds of gun owners to the Statehouse, and Wednesday's hearing in the House is expected to do the same. Supporters, including a group called Mothers and Others Against Gun Violence, plan to gather at the Statehouse as well to urge lawmakers to pass the bills, which would represent the most sweeping changes to state gun regulations in years.

The assault weapons ban would outlaw the sale, purchase or possession of semi-automatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Weapons or magazines legally acquired before July would be exempt from the prohibition.

The proposals would also stiffen penalties for a variety of gun crimes, require all handgun permits to go through the attorney general's office, and create a task force to review state gun laws and the use of mental health records in background checks.

Rhode Island already has some of the strictest gun laws in the country. But the December school shootings in Newtown, Conn., led Gov. Lincoln Chafee and top lawmakers to take another look at gun violence measures. The bills have the support of Chafee, an independent, as well as Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, all Democrats.

Despite that list of influential supporters, Kim Ziegelmayer said she and many of the members of Mothers and Others Against Gun Violence worry lawmakers may balk at the legislation because of pressure from gun owners.

"There's a feeling that this is unwinnable," said the mother of two from Smithfield. "I try to take the long view, that this is going to be a very long struggle."

Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster and a leading opponent of the bills, said he has received more than 1,000 emails from gun owners concerned about what the changes would mean. He called the House "hostile territory" for his side, but said he's hopeful the Senate will reject at least some of the measures, which he said won't reduce crime but will infringe on Second Amendment rights.

"We know there's a lot of politics and emotion behind this," he said. "We're just fighting to mitigate the damage done to the Constitution."

Another proposal pending before lawmakers would require firearms owners to register their weapons with local police, pay a $100-per-gun fee and to require safety mechanisms on all guns sold in the state.

None of the bills have been scheduled for a vote.

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