Gun ownership and use are on the rise in Rhode Island

Only Michigan reported a greater increase in background checks, year over year

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 2/5/21

Add gun acquisition and violence to the list of troubling societal issues that just got worse in 2020.According to the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence (RICAV), 2020 saw a 111 percent …

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Gun ownership and use are on the rise in Rhode Island

Only Michigan reported a greater increase in background checks, year over year


Add gun acquisition and violence to the list of troubling societal issues that just got worse in 2020.

According to the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence (RICAV), 2020 saw a 111 percent increase in FBI gun background checks, and an 87 percent increase in gun deaths. In addition, a recent Boston University study revealed that Rhode Island is among a handful of states targeted for 2nd Amendment activism.

While violent gun-related crime is not a significant problem throughout much of the East Bay — the Bristol Police Department said as much while publicizing a recent gun buyback event — it's still a significant public safety concern. The presence of guns in a home dramatically increases the likelihood of suicide by firearm or accidents in a home. "When you bring a gun into your home, it becomes 5 times more likely that someone in your home will become a victim of gun violence," said Linda Finn, RICAV's Executive Director. "The number times that guns are used for protection, especially in communities like Bristol or Middletown, are so, so low," said Ms. Finn. "And our police departments are very responsive. If you call the police, in the time it takes to unlock and load a gun, they would practically be there."

Why the recent surge?

In the past, gun acquisition has been spurred on by a change in leadership, as when Barack Obama took office in 2008 and people were concerned that there would be broad changes in gun laws that would limit 2nd Amendment rights. But Ms. Finn does not think that was the primary driver in 2020, because it was not a foregone conclusion that Donald Trump would be leaving office. She thinks a combination of the forces that dominated the 2020 news cycle, from the unrest in the wake of the George Floyd shooting and conversations about "defunding" police, to the pandemic, created opportunities for the gun lobby to ratchet up the level of fear and the sense that guns are something we need to protect ourselves.

"Many of the events of the last year have been the kind that break down a society and create the impression of chaos, and that we need to protect ourselves against our government and each other," she said.

That doesn't, however, explain the fact that Rhode Island — a state that traditionally has had among the lowest rates of gun ownership in the country — has seen growth in this area that has outpaced that of most other states. One recent poll indicated relatively low ownership in this state is still the case, with 20 percent of Rhode Islanders identifying as gun owners. It could be simply that we have more "room to grow" in this area, or it could be that the fact that Rhode Island's more relaxed laws, relative to neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut, with regard to gun and ammunition sales, means that sales to out-of-state residents are skewing our statistics.

Changing nature of gun advocacy

These days, the highly influential and organized National Rifle Association (NRA) is in a bit of disarray, facing bankruptcy and lawsuits, but several groups, characterized by Ms. Flynn as more militant, including the 2nd Amendment Coalition and Gun Owners of America, have been expanding to fill the void being left by the NRA.

Legislative successes by gun advocates have made it more difficult to dig into the data to get a true picture of gun ownership in Rhode Island. "The NRA got legislators to believe that gun registration will lead to confiscation, so we currently do not keep any record of who owns fund in this state, and how many," said Ms. Finn. "Gun sellers tear up the sales record 7 days later, so that's part of the issue."

More gun owners, or just more guns?

Another thing that is difficult to confirm with available data is whether this recent phenomenon indicates that significantly more people or buying guns, or are existing gun owners just buying more? The fact that the number of FBI background checks (which may or may not lead to sales) has increased at a greater rate than gun violence suggests that collectors may account for some of the increase, but the 87 percent increase in gun related deaths in Rhode Island in just one year is a chilling statistic. The data that would track home gun accidents and suicide by firearm along with other incidents of gun violence is not in one place," said Ms. Finn. "What we do know, is more guns equals more incidents.

Local legislators have ambitious 2021 agenda

East Bay legislators are sponsoring, co-sponsoring, and advocating for several bills aimed at addressing common sense gun reform in the state, such as bans on high capacity magazines, military style assault weapons and guns in schools. These include Senate Bill 0073, The Harold M. Metts School Safety Act of 2021, cosponsored by Senators Cindy Coyne (D-32) and Dawn Euer (D-13). This act would prohibit the possession of firearms on school grounds except for peace officers, retired law enforcement officers, persons under contract to provide school security services, and unloaded firearms in locked containers or a locked rack in a motor vehicle.

Rep. Susan Donovan (D-69) is troubled by the increase in gun and ammunition sales and will be co-sponsoring bills in the House aimed at banning assault weapons and concealed carry in schools.

“It’s troubling that in the past year there has been a dramatic increase in people who have purchased firearms for the first time. The response to government lock-downs, protests, and a change in elected officials in favor of gun control are listed as catalysts,” Rep. Donovan said. “Whatever the reasons, more guns may lead to more accidental as well as domestic violence deaths. Passing legislation may make us feel safer, but it does not change the root cause of these trends.”

Her House colleague, Rep. June Speakman, feels similarly. In an emailed statement, she wrote: “The dramatic spike in background checks is an unfortunate and troubling consequence of the increased tension and anxiety that Americans feel as the result of the current political, social and economic environment. We already have more guns than people in the United States. These increased background checks indicate that that number will continue to go up, and with it the threat of spikes in gun violence.

“Having more guns in circulation is the wrong way to go.”


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