Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha announced last month the second major statewide grand jury indictment in response to a so-called firearm “straw purchasing” operation. It is alleged that a group of men bought guns from a handful of Rhode Island businesses for the purposes of selling them illegally. The leader of the conspiracy, Rashaan Magnum, had reported the guns stolen to Providence Police, in what law enforcement officials say was a ruse to cover his tracks.
Two other men were recently convicted of running a similar scheme in state court and sentenced to a combined 16 years in prison.
“This criminal operation led to dozens of illegal firearms being circulated onto our streets, presenting a serious threat of violence within the community,” said Steven Paré, Providence Commissioner of Public Safety in statement to the press.
Rhode Island state law bars anyone with a felony conviction for a crime of violence from possessing such weapons. Neronha’s office alleges that between June 2019 and August 2020, the five men charged sought to profit off this prohibition, leading to 89 handguns (possibly) finding their way to the streets of Providence and surrounding Rhode Island municipalities.
“We know that illegal firearms are a critical driving factor in violent crime in Rhode Island, which is why my office and our partners in law enforcement have made a concerted effort to make these cases,” said Neronha in a February press release. “This indictment is the second major example in just the last month of this kind of dangerous criminal conduct. These defendants ran a significant operation involving dozens of illegal guns, including some that made their way into our communities.”
Homicides and shootings increased dramatically in the city during 2020. Other major crimes, such as assaults and robberies, actually declined in comparison. According to the Providence Police Department’s annual data, homicides with firearms jumped over 30% from 2019, with aggravated assaults using guns increasing by 1%. The number of gunshot victims more than doubled during that time.
What’s more, the city took until March 2020 to log its first homicide., which was followed by a harrowing spike thereafter. Fifteen of the city’s 18 murders occurred in the back half of the year.
According to violence prevention experts, backed up by years of social science data, warmer weather brings with it more gunplay, especially in poorer sections of American cities. They chalk up this phenomenon mostly to people being outdoors for greater amounts of time, although increased irritability and a decrease in police activity on extremely hot days may also play a role. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California found that violent crimes increased by 5.7% on days where the temperature reached 85 degrees or higher.
During a year where Americans spent an historic amount of time indoors, the COVID-19 pandemic is still being pointed to as the cause of record-breaking amounts of violent crime across the country.
To combat the surge in gun violence, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s administration instituted a gun buyback program in October 2020, in a partnership with Central Falls, resulting in hundreds of firearms taken off the city’s streets. While the national issue of gun safety and legislative reform often crowds the headlines, many crimes involving firearms are committed with illegally procured guns, but statistics vary from state to state.
Neronha says he supports additional legislation to tighten up background checks and increase criminal penalties for straw purchasers.
“‘Straw purchases’ are a substantial source of illegal guns in our state and a threat to public safety,” he said.
Rep. Justine Caldwell and House Whip Katherine Kazarian have introduced four gun-related bills this session that would limit magazine capacity to 10 rounds, prohibit concealed carry in k through 12 public schools, strengthen firearm storage regulation and ban so-called assault weapons.
According to the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, Rhode Island saw the second highest increase in the country during the national surge in applications for gun purchases that began in March 2020. More guns equal more gun deaths, they say. The total number of deaths from gunshots almost doubled between 2019 and 2020, from 15 to 28.
As the current statewide vaccine rollout moves forward and temperature rises, law enforcement officials and public safety advocates are now bracing for another possible spike in violence on the city’s streets. The pandemic has had lasting effects on the financial and social resources meant to combat these tragedies.