Few have legal right to carry concealed handgun in Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Very few Rhode Islanders have a permit to legally carry a concealed handgun, but the vast majority of those who do submit their applications through the state rather than their local cities or towns, according to a Target 12 review of data.

Target 12 requested data on concealed carry weapon permits from every police department as well as the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office. By law, people seeking a concealed carry permit can submit an application through a local police department or the attorney general’s office.

As of the end of the 2015 calendar year, the data shows 3,577 Rhode Island residents had an active permit to carry a hidden handgun, which is just 0.34% of the population. In sheer numbers, Cranston has the most concealed carry permits at 346 and Central Falls as the fewest at 12 with the exception of Block Island, which has 10.

The communities of Scituate, West Greenwich and Tiverton have the most concealed carry permits per capita, while the urban centers of Central Falls, Providence and Newport have the fewest.

Woonsocket was the only community that did not supply the information to Target 12.

conceal carry graphic
See a town-by-town breakdown of active concealed weapon permits in RI.

Nearly 70 percent of active permits – 2,489 of the 3,577 statewide – were obtained through the attorney general’s office. A spokesperson for Attorney General Peter Kilmartin said in 2015 the state approved 98 percent of all new concealed carry applications and 96 percent of renewals. Towns approved 87 percent of all applications.

State Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, a gun rights advocate who also has a concealed carry permit, said cities and towns can make it difficult for people to get permission to carry a concealed weapon.

“I think folks who try go through the city or town process, depending on the city or town, can have a difficult time,” Chippendale said. Some towns, he continued, “will take an application under consideration and do due diligence, and there are other cities and towns that don’t.”

In Warren, the data shows the town hasn’t issued a single concealed carry permit dating back to 2010. All of the 21 active permits there were issued by the attorney general’s office. In an email, Chief Peter Achilli said the “historic practice is to refer all inquires to the attorney general’s office where there is an established and effective process of issuance and statewide record keeping.”

The Lincoln Police Department said they have reviewed just two applications there since 2010 and neither application was approved. All 71 active permits to town residents were approved by the attorney general’s office.

Lincoln is one of the few communities that require the applicant to undergo a mental health evaluation as part of the process. The state does not require a psychiatric evaluation.

On the other end, the town of Tiverton issued the most permits locally – 150 of the 159 active permits were approved by the police chief, the remainder by the state.

Proposed changes

In June, a bill that would change how police chiefs review and decide upon permit applications passed in the Rhode Island House, but failed in the Senate, emerging as a key point of contention in the final hours of the session.

Among several changes proposed, the legislation set a 60-day deadline for a chief to decide on an application, outlined a standardized set of questions to use for the application process and called for a hearing process for people to appeal denials.

When applying for a concealed carry permit, a person must be deemed a suitable person and prove a “showing of need.”

The bill also added language that the police chief would have to show “clear and convincing evidence” that a person is not suitable to obtain a concealed carry permit.

“There is no standardized application, there is no standardized fee, nothing was standardized,” Chippendale said. “So you would have one town that doesn’t want to give permits and would charge a very high fee, one town just wouldn’t even entertain an application and they would let it sit on the desk until the person gave up.”

Gov. Gina Raimondo later said it was “surprising and upsetting” that lawmakers were trying “to make it easier to get a gun” in the wake of the then-recent mass shooting in Orlando. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello disagreed, saying the bill would have standardized the process in response to complaints about slowness at the local level.

Former Little Compton Police Chief Sidney Wordell, now executive director of the R.I. Police Chiefs’ Association, said the legislation would have handcuffed local chiefs’ ability to look into an applicant’s background thoroughly.

“It was very restrictive and there was a disparity in what the attorney general’s office could ask as to what a local chief could,” Wordell said. “Not restricting on how much of a background you could do, certainly goes a long way for determining that suitability.”

He added, “a police chief’s main objective – without imposing on somebody’s right – is the safety of the entire community.”

Chippendale said he does not think the legislation would have made it any easier for an individual to obtain a permit, and plans on resubmitting a similar bill next year.

“These chiefs who are willing to consider issuing a permit didn’t have that guidance and those guidelines to go by so consequently they were creating their own,” Chippendale said. “They weren’t uniform throughout the state and some of the chiefs were finding that they were in very difficult positions.”

‘Shall’ v. ‘May’

Both Wordell and Chippendale said a viable option is to take the responsibility out of the local chiefs’ hands and have the attorney general’s office review and decide upon all applications. But one word may get in the way of that happening.

State law says a local chief “shall” issue a license to a suitable person with need, while the attorney general “may” issue the permit.

“I understand why police chiefs would want to do that because they don’t have all the staffing,” Chippendale said. “[But] I would be very adamant that the ‘may’ would have to disappear on the attorney general’s level – it would have to become ‘shall.'”

Wordell said that change would be opposed by police chiefs.

A spokesperson for Kilmartin said his office would be willing to handle 100 percent of the applications for concealed carry permits, but would not endorse changing the wording in the law.

“The attorney general has no problem being the issuer of [concealed carry weapon] permits and supports it in concept,” Amy Kempe said in an email. “The attorney general opposes the change from ‘may’ to ‘shall.'”

Processing fees vary

The proposed bill would have also capped the application fee at $40. A Target 12 review of data shows towns charge widely different fees for the application process.

New Shoreham does not charge anything, while Providence asks for $250, as does West Warwick. Most towns – 28 of 37 that responded – charge a $40 processing fee, but it costs $160 in Central Falls, and $100 in Bristol, Cranston, East Providence and Warren.

Smithfield Police Chief Richard St. Sauveur said the process to review an application is extensive.

He said after he conducts a “cursory” review of the application, it is handed over to the detective division for a complete investigation and background check.

“This entails obtaining mental health information, if any, from various hospitals and the applicant’s primary care physician, criminal background inquiries, and face-to-face interview and review/verification of responses in the application,” St. Sauveur said in an email. “This work is performed in addition to the detective’s regular criminal case follow-up responsibilities.” He added that criminal cases take priority over permit applications.

The detective’s division then makes a recommendation to the police chief on the application, and the chief issues or denies the permit.

‘I do it for my own safety’

Prior national studies have found Rhode Island ranks near the bottom in percentage of population that has a concealed carry weapons permit. A 2014 report by the Crime Prevention Research Center found Rhode Island ranks below 0.5 percent per capita along with Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, California and other states. Top states include South Dakota, at 12 percent of the population with a concealed carry permit, followed by Indiana and Alabama. Some states don’t require a separate permit to carry a hidden handgun.

Chippendale said he thinks Rhode Island’s low ranking is because of the region’s politics and policy.

“We’re in the Northeast, we’re part of a liberal society up here,” he said. “And also the policy – or in this case the statutes – are not put together in a manner that makes it smooth and consistent for towns to accept or deny applications.”

Chippendale said he received his concealed carry permit in 1992 when he was starting out in real estate and had to collect rent from tenants and was carrying cash.

“I do it for my own safety,” Chippendale said. “Especially in today’s day and age if an individual is suitable to be in possession of and carry a loaded firearm on a person, they have every right in the world to exercise that right to protect themselves and their family.”

Wordell said the Police Chief’s Association may propose its own changes to the law next year.

“There has got to be a compromise for law enforcement to be able to do due diligence to make sure that person is suitable and [they have] the need,” Wordell said.

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Darren Soens contributed to this report.

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