Gun-rights advocates take Rhode Island permit law to task


Staff member
A behind-the-scenes tug of war has been going on between the state’s police chiefs and gun ownership advocates over how local departments should decide who is allowed to carry a concealed firearm in public.

For more than a year, members and volunteers with the Citizens’ Rights Action League Rhode Island, a group of gun-rights supporters, have been showing up in police stations across the state, demanding to see the individual department’s standards for deciding who gets a concealed-weapons permit.

Police departments were required to develop such policies under the terms of a 2002 Superior Court decision in a suit brought by Smithfield resident James W. Archer, head of the gun-rights organization.

Archer, a former Republican Town Committee chairman, said the object of the visits to departments was not to get a permit. The aim, he said, was to be denied one — so the league can file a lawsuit that would produce a decision, like in the 2002 case, which would roll back what the league sees as unconstitutional restrictions on gun ownership.

“What we’re trying to do here is construct a whole new body of law,” Archer said.

In the 1920s, the law authorized police departments to issue concealed-weapons permits. That made sense in an era when people were born, lived and died in the same town, said Johnston police Maj. Ralph Bubar III, because the local police would know the local applicant best.

But as society became more mobile, especially after World War II, Bubar said departments began referring applicants to the attorney general’s office.

That changed, though, when Archer won his 2002 lawsuit. The judge ruled that, while the attorney general can continue to issue such permits, police departments cannot refuse to issue them to “suitable” applicants.

According to the attorney general’s office, 4,383 people held concealed-weapons permits in Rhode Island in 2007, about 10 percent fewer that the 4,895 in 2001. Generally, the office handled between 276 and 372 new requests a year and the annual approval rate for new permits in that period ranged from 84 percent to 91 percent.

Pawtucket Police Chief George L. Kelley III, president of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association, said his organization preferred leaving the permit process in the hands of the attorney general, because that ensured a single standard and the office was a central repository for information on permit holders.

“As much as I have confidence in the other police chiefs, it does help having one basic application, one basic standard that everyone meets,” Kelley said.

Concealed-weapon permits are needed because, while an individual’s right to keep a gun in his own home is well established, the right to carry it around town in one’s pocket is not.

To gun-rights advocates, Archer said, it’s the most essential personal freedom: The right to protect yourself and your property.

But it’s a core protection issue for the police chiefs too. They say they have a responsibility to make sure the prospective licensee is legally and psychologically up to that responsibility.

Assistant Attorney General Jim Lee, head of the office’s civil division, said the attorney general does not require psychological testing for applicants who file with his office. He declined to pass judgment on departments that do, saying, “We don’t do, it, but the statute gives the chiefs the right to exercise their discretion.”

The problem arises because while the court said departments had to issue permits to “suitable” applicants, it didn’t define “suitable.” Not surprisingly, Archer and the chiefs have differing definitions.

“It is working out the way I expected,” Archer said. “But not the way it should.”

After the 2002 ruling, most departments simply adopted the attorney general’s application standards as their own.

But at least six departments — Coventry, Cumberland, Lincoln, North Providence, West Warwick and Pawtucket — went a step further and required applicants to submit to psychological testing, the same testing that prospective police officers must complete. Other chiefs say they may follow suit.

Kelley said granting a concealed weapon permit is a significant decision and the testing provides valuable insight.

“If we have someone with a permit,” he said, “we want someone of sound mind.”

Coventry Police Chief Ronald E. DaSilva said he needed more than job history and a criminal background check to decide whether to grant a permit; the psychological testing was a crucial part of the process.

“I need something else to tell me this person is on solid ground,” he said.

“I’m a local police chief, I’m responsible for the town of Coventry,” he said. “But if I give someone a carry permit, I’ve given them permission to carry that firearm across the state of Rhode Island.”

“We also have citizens to protect who are just doing their everyday business,” West Warwick Chief Paul A.Villa said. “Inject a weapon into that context and things can happen.”

Archer said he sees psychological testing not as a tool to make better decisions, but as a hurdle to dissuade potential applicants. Having lost the ability to pass the responsibility to the state, he said, police chiefs were looking for ways to deter applicants from even asking.

“We’ve won, they’ve accepted that,” he said of the issue of evaluating applications. “Now they’re finding reasons not to issue.”

Archer said subjecting applicants to the same tests required for prospective police officers sets an unfair standard for a civilian seeking a permit for his or her protection.

“The average person is not expected to rush into a violent confrontation,” he said. “The average person will retreat from a confrontation.”

Even the possibility of testing could be a deterrent, Archer said. Some applicants may be intimidated by the prospect of having to submit to questioning and having that process lead to a judgment about them.

DaSilva said one person complained about the testing as an invasion of privacy and refused to submit an application.

The applicant is expected to pay for the cost of the tests, and DaSilva and Cumberland Deputy Chief Michael L. Kinch said for their departments, the cost was about $300 per police applicant.

Besides the cost, Archer said the testing requires an application to go to the University of Rhode Island for a day during the workweek.

“It’s an effort to make the process more difficult,” he said.

Archer said a suit challenging the departments’ right to use psychological testing in their review process was “imminent.”

“This is the next step,” he said.

“If we lose that part of it, then we lose that part of it,” Pawtucket’s Chief Kelley said. “But I hope we don’t.”

By John Hill

Rhode Island law's 11-47

I went thru life using the General Laws as a guide to model my actions, as a result of my employment over a 30+ year period I try to follow the laws as printed, if the current language does not suit the "want's and ideas" of some enforcement officials they should have the legislation revisited by proper authorities to determine if a change is necessary.
In the meantime the laws should be used as printed and approved by the General Assembly. I feel that ALL GOVT. OPERATIONS from Washingnton down to local city and town halls have been allowed to operate as they want , unless someone complains and has enough time and cash to challenge the enforcers in court and win we will contnue to be subjected to police rule.
RI Gen law 11- 47-11 is very clear, the license authority SHALL ISSUE if you have a fear or other GOOD REASON, there are requirements to follow and also a provision to hold the issuer innocent if the permnit was issued in compliance with 11-47-11.
Who is the police chief to make agreements with an AG to circumvate the General Laws as intended and adopted? You refer to RIGL 11-47-18 (the AG MAY ISSUE upon a showing of NEED.)this allows him to deny for no given reason, we should not allow the AG to be a Judge and Senator/member of the House of Rep's. in a ex-officio way.
If you indicate that General Law 11-47-08 requires you to be permitted, I am sure you will be denied
.and be referred to in the legal circles as a jerk and troublemaker. When I read the clearly written law it is adequate to give the 11-47-08. response.


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