PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – As gun violence plagues cities across the country, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza is preparing to launch an aggressive campaign against gun violence and illegal firearms in Rhode Island’s capital city.
Elorza said he intends to bring law enforcement officials, policymakers and community stakeholders together to discuss ways to educate young people on the dangers of guns, intervention methods and strategies for closing what he considers loopholes in existing gun laws.
“It’s not about getting tough on crime and locking these folks up and throwing away the key,” Elorza told WPRI.com. “It’s not that mentality at all. It’s about being smarter on gun issues.”
Elorza’s comments came on the heels of a survey he filled out for Politico Magazine where he said he supports expanded and stricter background checks for gun buyers, prohibiting people with restraining orders from purchasing firearms, stiffer penalties for straw purchases and renewing the federal assault weapons ban. He said he does not support open carry laws or believe teachers or principals should be armed.
Elorza’s survey answers largely mirrored the responses given by 45 mayors from across the country. All told 89% of the municipal leaders said they don’t believe Congress is doing enough on gun control and 89% said cities should be able to implement tougher gun restrictions than surrounding states.
In Providence, Elorza said he wants to focus on informing the community on both the dangers and consequences of firearms. He also said a “consistent frustration” among law enforcement officials is that people who are arrested on gun charges are quickly released from custody, sending a message that “it’s no big deal” to have a gun.
Another component of his campaign will be “focused intervention” on those most likely to carry an illegal gun or reoffend. He said expanding mentorship programs could be one way to reach “at-risk” kids.
“There’s a lot we can do to get guns off the street,” Elorza said.
Violent crime has been on a downward trend across the country – 2014 was Providence’s safest year in at least three decades – but many of the nation’s largest cities have seen an uptick in gun-related homicides this year.
Records show nine of Providence’s 13 homicides in 2015 have involved a gun. The number of shooting victims in the city has dropped from 110 in 2011 to 62 as of Oct. 26. Police say they’ve recovered 115 firearms this year, putting the city on pace to match the average number of gun seizures over the last four years.
“If you look at why crime was so bad 25 or 30 years ago, I think that cities were seen as these wastelands,” Elorza said. “They weren’t receiving the focused attention they deserved.”
Earlier this year, more than 30 people were charged in a sweeping investigation into the sale of drugs and guns across Providence. Elorza said the city worked with Rhode Island State Police, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and Federal Bureau of Investigation on the sweep.
Elorza said officials believe the bulk of the city’s violent crime is committed by “a very small number of people,” and the key is to advocate for “common sense gun legislation” on the federal level and educate the community about illegal firearms.
Rhode Island lawmakers have approved several pieces of legislation in recent years aimed at combating gun violence throughout the state. In 2014, the General Assembly approved legislation to make it felony to possess a gun with an obliterated serial number. The bill was drafted by Attorney General Peter Kilmartin.
Kilmartin has also advocated for legislation that would make straw purchases a felony, enhance penalties for those who illegally sell guns and make it a crime for minors to have a gun, but those bills have not been approved by the General Assembly.
On the campaign trail last year, mayoral candidate Brett Smiley, who now works as Elorza’s chief operating officer, proposed a 10% supplemental sales tax on all gun and ammunition sales in the state. When asked if he might consider a similar proposal, Elorza said it’s something he plans to discuss with community leaders.
“There’s a lot we’ve done in the city,” he said. “We can always do more.”