With November’s statewide election drawing closer, Rhode Island is beginning to enter its bi-annual political frenzy of candidates and policies. In the four years since the last mayoral race, the nation has seen a dozen gun-related mass murders and hundreds of shootings in Providence alone, putting firearm policy atop the list of hot topics.
In one new approach to this complex issue, Providence mayoral candidate Brett Smiley (D) proposed a 10% supplemental sales tax on all guns and ammunition sales statewide with proceeds benefiting anti-violence efforts by nonprofits and underfunded community outreach programs.
Providence has not seen a proactive step toward the reduction of gun violence since Mayor Cicilline’s implementation of community policing in 2006. But is the proposed law fair to those who purchase firearms legally while the majority of shootings are carried out with illegally obtained weapons? Would financially backing selected community outreach programs have an effect on the rising number of shootings annually? Motif invited Brett Smiley and GOP Chair, Mark Smiley (no relation, as far as they can tell) into the studio to debate just that.
Brett (D): [The proposed law] is inspired by cigarette taxes. Just like we ask the tobacco companies and smokers to pay for public health initiatives, I think it’s fair to ask the firearms industry and those who prop it up to pay for anti-violence efforts.
Mark (R): On the surface, [the law] has merit. Of course gun violence is a terrible thing in the state; we don’t want to see it happening. But to tax gun owners when just a tiny percentage of the actual violence in the state is perpetrated by people who legally own guns … it’s not exactly related.
Mark links the state’s violence epidemic with its poor economy. “We have to improve that and the gun violence will relieve itself,” he explained. Brett agreed that there is a correlation between violence and poverty, but went on to explain that guns legally obtained do end up in the wrong hands.
While “Blue Cards,” received after passing a firearm safety evaluation, are required for purchasing firearms, there is no permit required to purchase ammunition. Both party representatives agreed that requiring a Blue Card to purchase ammo is a step in the right direction.
Mark: [But to] randomly tax people who are doing something perfectly legal that is also part of their Second Amendment rights … cigarettes are not part of the constitution.
Brett: Paying an extra 10% on either a box of shells or a new firearm isn’t infringing on anyone’s constitutional right, but [it’s] providing a way to protect the whole community.
Mark: It’s penalizing people who haven’t done anything wrong. There was recently a Harvard study put out that can’t find a correlation between stricter gun control laws and a reduction in gun violence. Guns don’t create any violence, it’s the people behind them. We have to fix that part.
Brett: I don’t think this is actually going to be an infringement on gun owners, but rather a fair and justified place to find additional funding to keep our streets and cities safer.
Mark: We need to figure out how to reduce the amount of revenue that we’re taking from the people that will allow them to create the economic prosperity that would solve the poverty issues.
Brett: We have students not receiving the proper education, an economy that is either not growing or growing too slow, and we have real serious public safety challenges. These three things are interconnected.
He went on to speculate that students don’t walk to school out of safety concerns, and that once a pupil’s fear of violence is resolved they may gain the proper education to become Providence’s entrepreneurs of tomorrow, in turn, improving the economy and reducing the crime rate.
“We need to find ways to provide additional support to the people doing anti-violence work in our neighborhoods.” Brett’s proposed law would strengthen community policing, implemented post-Mayor Cianci, to forge partnerships between the police force and crime-ridden neighborhoods. Statistically, crime dropped exponentially in the years that followed that earlier focus on community policing. The proposed law is a tool to re-form those community programs without drawing more, debatably needed, funds into the Providence police force.
The new tax would bring in an estimated $2 million each year.
Mark: It sounds to me like you’re trying to take a disproportionate amount of money from all around the state to correct problems in Providence. Telling someone in Narragansett that they need to pay for that — that’s not fair to anyone involved.
Brett: The capital city is an asset to this entire state. Just like you go to shows in Providence and have a meal on Federal Hill. You want to feel safe at that meal. The assets that we have in Providence are statewide assets.
Mark: I haven’t seen [violence] keep anyone away yet.
Brett’s proposed law has the backing of 10 sponsors and has been introduced into the house and senate where it is currently awaiting its hearing. It will find its way from there to house and senate finance and from there, to the floor.