Attorney General Report Details Problems, Tees Up Lawmakers’ Bills

First published online April 4, 2023.
Authors: Katherine Gregg
Providence Journal USA TODAY NETWORK

Despite lawmakers’ hotly debated and highly controversial moves to reduce the number of guns on the street, Rhode Island is still ‘inundated with guns … and we are seeing them in every corner of the state, both rural and urban.’

So begins Attorney General Peter Neronha’s once-a-year rundown on gun crimes across the state, a dataheavy report that sets the stage for what promises to be an hours-long State House hearing April 17 on more than two-dozen gun bills put in by lawmakers on both sides of the divide, including this year’s latest effort to ban ‘assault weapons.’

In the report released Monday, Neronha acknowledges lawmakers’ giving state prosecutors more tools to remove firearms from criminals, including drug traffickers with large stashes of guns, cocaine and fentanyl; banning ghost guns assembled from components purchased online; and placing a 10-round limit on high-capacity firearms magazines.

The headlines appear periodically – an arrest here, an arrest there, including the August indictment of two men in the drive-by shooting death of a 24year-old woman as she stood on a Providence street talking to a friend.

What does the report tell us about gun crime in Rhode Island?

Neronha’s report spells out the volume in 2022:

 66 cases involving the manufacture and/or possession of ghost guns with no serial numbers – including 3Dprinted firearms ‘sought out more and more by those who are otherwise prohibited from lawfully possessing guns in Rhode Island,’ the report says.

 More than 100 criminal cases where police seized magazines capable of firing anywhere from 16 to 30-plus rounds of bullets, including one that in June resulted in a 23-year prison sentence for a Providence man who committed ‘an armed assault on a Providence police officer and a robbery with a ghost gun and a 27-round large capacity magazine.’

 11 cases against ‘straw purchasers’ who obtained one or more firearms for someone prohibited from buying or possessing a firearm. Among the stark pictures Neronha painted of life behind the curtains in some corners of Rhode Island:

 In October 2022, a West Warwick couple were charged after an investigation into alleged firearms and ghost-gun manufacturing.

 Seized were 37 firearms including 3 machine guns, 5 ghost guns, 23 ghost gun kits, 1 pistol with an obliterated serial number, 16 silencers and suppressors, tools to manufacture firearms, about 223 assorted magazines, 3 body armor vests, assorted holsters and tactical gear and hundreds of rounds of various calibers of ammunition, according to the report.

Report meant to prove ‘aggressive enforcement’ of RI’s gun laws

Lawmakers directed the attorney general’s office to produce the annual reports to address the argument each year by gun-rights advocates that Rhode Island does not need more gun laws but rather needs to enforce the laws already on its books.

The report is meant to demonstrate that the attorney general’s office is engaged in ‘aggressive enforcement’ of Rhode Island’s existing gun laws, citing case after case:

 ‘A Providence man sentenced to 45 years with 37 years to serve for possessing an illegal handgun and leading police on a vehicle chase through Pawtucket and Providence;

 ‘A double life sentence for the perpetrator of the 2020 New Year’s day murder of a 54-year-old Pawtucket woman;

 ‘A 45-year sentence with 25 years to serve for a Providence man for shooting and seriously injuring a 26-year-old with an illegal gun.’

In 2022, the report notes: four defendants were each sentenced to serve at least 10 years in prison for a May 2021 Providence shootout that wounded nine people. Investigators seized an arsenal, including over 500 rounds of ammunition and four magazines with capacities above 30 rounds.

When asked for his takeaways from Neronha’s latest report, House Minority Leader – and vocal gun-rights advocate – Rep. Michael Chippendale told The Journal: ‘This is an extremely complex report … that will require study and research.

‘Each of those case numbers reported has to be researched so that the criminal past of the individual offender can be determined in order to delineate the repeat offenders from the one-time offenders. There needs to also be a thoughtful interpretation of all of the various data to determine … any consistencies or trends.’

More stats from the report:

 During 2022, 547 gun-related cases were filed, the vast majority (486) of them in Providence County.

 Of the 416 cases that were wrapped up last year by trial, plea or dismissal, 192 resulted in prison sentences.

 Of those who were sentenced to prison, 11 were sentenced to terms over 10 years, 43 were sentenced to terms between 5 and 10 years, others received lighter sentences and 96 received suspended sentences.

 There were 383 gun-related cases still pending as of Dec. 31, 2022, including cases that dated to previous years.