Can Rhode Island Lead the Way on Guns?

In early February, Providence mayoral candidate Brett Smiley, who is running in the Democratic primary but currently holds no elected position, submitted a bill to the Rhode Island General Assembly with the help of State Senator Gayle Goldin and State Representative Maria Cimini that, if passed, would impose a ten percent sales tax on all guns and ammo sold in Rhode Island. The projected $2 million raised is to be allocated to “every town and city police department based proportionally on the prevalence of crime in each area, and then each police department will further allocate the money to non-profits with a demonstrated commitment to reducing crime and violence.”

If passed, this bill will establish, for the first time anywhere in the United States, a tax on guns and ammunition with the intention of creating a permanent funding stream for nonprofit anti-violence efforts.

Smiley, at the press conference announcing the bill, said, “Just like we expect the tobacco industry and those who support it to pay for public health initiatives, the firearms industry and those who prop it up should be paying to keep our streets safe.”

Right now only Cook County, Illinois, has instituted anything similar — a flat $25 on guns, but not ammo. The money raised is to help defray hospital costs for gun victims. No state currently has anything like what Smiley is proposing on the books, though state legislatures in New Jersey, Washington, California, Nevada, Massachusetts and Maryland were considering taxing guns and/or ammo as of last year.

On the federal level, last year also saw US Reps. Danny Davis, D-IL, and Bill Pascrell, D-NJ propose a 20% tax on guns and a 50% tax on ammo. That bill, “The Gun Violence Prevention and Safe Communities Act of 2013″ went nowhere fast in the Republican controlled House of Representatives.

What makes Smiley’s bill unique is that he proposes to use the money generated by the new tax to fund non-profits dedicated to preventing gun violence, such as the “innovative and nationally lauded” Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence (ISPN). Founded in 2001, the ISPN has “brought the homicide rate down consistently over the past ten years” by working with law enforcement, medical professionals and gang members. The ISPN serves both victims and perpetrators of violent crime, responding to every homicide victim’s family and every victim of violent crime.

Streetworkers, trained in nonviolence, establish relationships with gang members, seeking to mediate conflicts nonviolently. Many Streetworkers are themselves former offenders, providing mentoring and advocacy for at-risk youth,  serving as positive role models and publicly demonstrating lives dedicated to peace rather than violence. The Institute utilizes nonviolence trainings in prison and schools, and works with juveniles and adults as they prepare to be released from training schools or prisons.

Lives have been saved due to the efforts of the ISPN, but budgeting shortfalls have curbed the Institutes effectiveness. Executive Director Teny Gross often recalls the emotional day he had to lay off most of his Streetworkers for lack of funds, on the same day a gunman murdered twenty-six children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in neighboring Connecticut. Said Gross, “It is a cruel twist of (fate) that Friday morning as I was making widespread layoffs due to federal and state funding cuts, a gunman was killing children and teachers.”

According to the ISPN, “Providence is one of the poorest cities for children in the nation, and poverty level correlates to rates of violence. There are estimated to be over 1,400 gang members in the city. A 2009 survey of youth in the Institute’s summer jobs program revealed that nearly 50% of the respondents had lost a family member to murder; 75% had lost a friend to violence; 90% had a friend who was stabbed or shot; nearly 90% said they regularly witness violence in their schools.”

As sickening as these statistics are, they did not penetrate the consciences of the average Rhode Islander until the murder of twelve year old honor student Aynis Vargas, shot outside her home while at a party with family and friends in June of last year. So senseless and tragic a death managed to rise above the easily ignored murders exchanged between rival street gangs. Aynis was simply a target of convenience as members of the Harriet Street gang reportedly decided to shoot “whomever they found outside” that Summer night.

Though compassion seems unable to move people, perhaps an appeal to economics can. The Providence Journal,  in its best piece of reporting in years, used data from the Children’s Safety Network and The Urban Institute in Washington DC to estimate the cost of a fatal shooting at over $5 million. Medical and legal costs, borne by taxpayers, run at about $425 thousand dollars, whether the victim lives or dies. Last year saw Providence Police count 210 assaults with firearms and 13 murders.

So are taxes on guns and ammo the future for communities trying to staunch the never-ending flow of gun violence? Perhaps, but not without a fight. In March last year “a group of gun sellers and owners” in Cook County filed suit in Circuit Court to block the $25 gun tax on Second Amendment grounds, only to be rebuffed by a judge who pointed out that the plaintiffs had “not demonstrated that this right is threatened by the tax.” Different courts in different parts of the country may issue different rulings if similar laws are challenged elsewhere.

The right wing in Rhode Island, like elsewhere in the US, love their guns and hate taxes, so the reaction from that side of Rhode Island has been shrill and predictable. Many in southern Rhode Island, where there are no urban areas, want to know why responsible gun owners are being taxed to help prevent gun violence in the inner city. Putting aside that many perpetrators commit crimes with guns stolen from these self-same “responsible” gun owners, how is the violent death of a child in Rhode Island not the concern of all Rhode Islanders, no matter where one lives?

The idea that gun violence is only an issue in Providence’s inner cities and not of concern to humble country folk was expressed by Rhode Island Tea Party Republican Representative Doreen Costa during hearings on a raft of gun bills that were proposed and not passed during the 2013 legislative session. “…these bills,” said Costa, “would hurt law abiding citizens and we keep talking about the City of Providence… I mean, Providence does need help, but we have cities and towns like Exeter and let’s say West Greenwich, East Greenwich, Warwick, Newport… the package before us would affect every single community, unfortunately, because we have the City of Providence. It seems that everybody uses [Providence] as an example and I just don’t think that’s right.”

Costa appears to be saying is that crime, shootings, the availability of handguns and the deaths of children in Providence and other urban parts of Rhode Island are not problems the entire state needs to be addressing. The problems of Providence are Providence’s to deal with alone, Costa implies, and no one from Exeter should be all that interested in the kind of common sense gun regulation that might help limit violence and save the lives of schoolchildren.

Costa may have underestimated her constituency, however. The citizens of Exeter that Costa wants to protect from new gun laws rejected an attempt by the gun lobby to recall the Exeter Town Council when council members suggested a minor change to the conceal/carry permitting process. Overwhelmingly the people of Exeter went to the polls, during a snowstorm, to support both the town council and common sense changes to the way our society deals with guns and violence.

National outrages like the massacre at Sandy Hook or local tragedies like the murder of a twelve year old girl in Providence are waking people up to the reality of gun violence, and so new ideas and new legislation to combat this violence are for the first time under serious consideration across the country. Most all of us want our children and our streets to be safe, and our better selves want to extend that peace and prosperity to everyone, even those living in the poorest sections of the inner city.

At some point, the gun rights groups will have to come to the table willing to make real concessions. A tax on guns and ammo to support non-profit anti-violence initiatives seems a reasonable place to start.

Steve Ahlquist is a writer, artist, filmmaker, Humanist activist and reporter for RI Future, a progressive political blog. He lives in Providence with his wife. Read other articles by Steve.