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Hopkinton joins Burrillville as a sanctuary for gun rights

Providence Journal logo Providence Journal 5/7/2019 By Tom Mooney, Providence Journal

HOPKINTON 2019--HOPKINTON -- It isn't on the scale of revolutionaries burning a British tax ship, or even West Warwick's secession from Warwick a century ago. But dissension is brewing in western Rhode Island over gun rights and the region's resentment of Smith Hill urbanites.

Following the lead of jurisdictions in eight other states, a handful of Rhode Island's rural communities are considering declaring themselves Second Amendment sanctuary communities -- places where the constitutional right to bear arms won't be infringed no matter what state lawmakers pass this session.

Town officials say they're employing the same kind of defiance as are "sanctuary cities" that pointedly oppose the federal government's immigration crackdown, although Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions are largely symbolic.

Burrillville was the first town to pass such a resolution last month, and on Monday night in Hopkinton, the Town Council, in a tiny town hall packed with gun-rights advocates, voted 3 to 2 in favor of a similar resolution.

"The Second Amendment is not a suggestion. It's guaranteed, like freedom of the press, freedom of assembly," said council member Scott Bill Hirst. "We have a degree of arrogance from state leaders ... and I'm going to proudly vote to defend the Second Amendment."

His words brought cheers from the standing-room-only audience.

Gov. Gina Raimondo has proposed a package of gun bills that would ban some popular assault-style rifles, place a 10-round limit on magazines and ban guns on or near school grounds, except those carried by law-enforcement officers.

Those bills have brought hundreds of gun-rights advocates to the State House several times this session as legislative committees discuss the proposals.

The towns of Glocester, Richmond, Foster and West Greenwich -- like Burrillville and Hopkinton, all communities that voted for Donald Trump for president over Hillary Clinton -- are also considering similar measures.

Following Burrillville's unanimous passage of the Second Amendment sanctuary resolution, state Sen. Elaine J. Morgan, R-Hopkinton, urged the five towns she represents (Hopkinton, Charlestown, Exeter, Richmond and West Greenwich) to make similar declarations.

"I swore an oath when taking office to protect and uphold our Constitution from any infringements," Morgan said in her letter. That means "any gun-control laws that infringe upon the constitutional right to keep and bear arms will not be enforced."

Raimondo has said if her gun proposals pass, she will expect every community to "follow the law, and the state police will enforce that law."

The Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence says "town councils do not get to cherry-pick which laws to follow."

"Anyone who believes that equal protection under the law is the cornerstone of democracy should be concerned to see their council members voting for resolutions that declare they will not comply with or enforce state laws that don't personally support," the coalition says.

Hopkinton council members Barbara Capalbo and Sharon Davis were in the minority Monday night, which was marked by respectful disagreement from all sides, despite the vociferous passions that gun-rights debates often generate.

They said that while they supported the Second Amendment, the resolution was only an unenforceable "feel-good measure." The resolution, which mirrors Burrillville's, asks that no town money ever be used to store any confiscated weapons and that police exercise "sound discretion" when enforcing laws that affect people's Second Amendment rights.

And, Davis said, something must be done to address so many mass killings. Banning assault-style weapons and limiting the size of magazines "isn't too much to ask," she said.

Gun-rights advocate John LaBrosse Jr. said Capalbo was correct, the resolution is a feel good measure. "We want to feel good you guys have our best intentions ... and back our Constitution."

"If you want to stay on our council," he said politely, "take heed."

Foster's Town Council is expected to take up a similar resolution on Thursday.

"It's just a message, obviously, but out here in Foster we have a lot of law-abiding gun owners and a lot of Second Amendment people who don't want any of their rights taken away," said council member Heidi Rogers.

George O. Steere is president of the Glocester Town Council. He says he's asked that the Second Amendment sanctuary resolution be put on the May 16 agenda.

"To me it's a pretty simple thing," said Steere. As town officials "We're sworn to protect the United States Constitution and the Rhode Island Constitution and it says in there we have the right to keep and bear arms."

"We're out here in the sticks. People have guns. They are law-abiding citizens. They like to shoot, to hunt. I have a farm and I have guns and no one is taking them away from me."

Divisions between rural and urban sections of the state usually split along political lines. Most of Rhode Island -- one of the country's most densely populated states -- is solidly democratic while its rural towns are traditionally Republican.

Time has changed some geopolitical boundaries. In 1913, most of the state's industrial and political power was centered in what is now West Warwick, where mills powered the region. Powerbrokers successfully campaigned to split that industrial center off from the rest of Warwick, which was then rural and inconsequential in their eyes.

State Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, represents one of the most rural areas of the state. It wasn't until about 18 months ago that everyone in Foster had internet access, he said.

"The folks up here are completely different from the folks I deal with on Smith Hill," he said. "And I support the idea that many of these rural town feel ignored by the state."

"These folks are trying to articulate that: 'We're not of the mindset of the rest of the state ... And please respect us and respect what we believe in.' .... They're feeling they are being ignored."

-- tmooney@providencejournal.com

(401) 277-7359

On Twitter: @mooneyprojo

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