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Gun control bills face difficult hurdles under new Rhode Island speaker with high NRA rating

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PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — A renewed push to ban semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines in Rhode Island is facing difficult political hurdles in the General Assembly — the same obstacles that derailed the legislation last year.

Prospects for the legislation dimmed again last week when House lawmakers chose Nicholas Mattiello, a gun rights supporter who wins high marks from the National Rifle Association, as their new speaker.

"I frankly think none of them had a great chance for passing to begin with," said Rep. Teresa Tanzi, D-South Kingstown and a supporter of the bills. "Our new speaker has said he is focusing in on economic issues and avoiding social issues. I'm guessing none of (the gun control bills) will come to a vote."

The bills were first introduced last year after the 2012 school shooting that killed 20 first-graders and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut Despite support from top lawmakers like ex-Speaker Gordon Fox, the bills never got a vote following vocal opposition from gun rights supporters.

Opponents recently held another rally on the Statehouse steps before a legislative hearing on the measures. Frank Saccoccio, a member of the Rhode Island Second Amendment Coalition, called the bills a "feel-good response that disarms law-abiding citizens yet do nothing to deter crime.

"We should be focusing on restricting access to those with mental illness," he said.

Indeed, tighter background checks for those seeking a firearm have been one area of common ground in Rhode Island's gun control debate. Rhode Island doesn't submit to a federal database the names of those who have been involuntarily committed and deemed to pose a danger. Lawmakers are expected to consider changing that policy this year.

Other firearm-related bills being considered by lawmakers this year include legislation that would bar an individual convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault from owning a firearm. Another would impose a $50 fine on those convicted of firearms offenses; the money would support firearm violence prevention efforts.

A third bill would change an existing prohibition on guns in schools to allow teachers and other nonstudents age 18 and older to carry a firearm on school grounds.

Backers of the proposal to ban the sale of semi-automatic firearms and large-capacity magazines argue they'll reduce the risk of mass shootings as well as more common acts of gun violence.

"We don't want to bury another child whose life was cut short because of violence; we've had enough," said the Rev. Gene Dyszlewski, a member of a coalition of religious leaders who support the bills.

Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat who had been the majority leader, has not yet weighed in on the gun control measures. But he's known to be a gun-rights supporter and has earned an A-plus political rating from the NRA. He also chose Rep. Cale Keable, another Democrat endorsed by the NRA, to lead the Judiciary Committee, and he named Rep. Doreen Costa, a Republican who has worked to block gun control legislation, as the vice chairwoman.

One of the legislature's top gun rights supporters, Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, said Mattiello's stance on gun control was one of several factors that prompted him to cast his vote for Mattiello and not Rep. Michael Marcello, D-Scituate, whose bid was backed by several gun control supporters.

"The Rhode Island economy is my first and foremost concern, but I've also been thrust into defending attacks on the Constitution, and you have to consider everything when you make a decision like this," he said.

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