Local News, National, News, Providence, Top Video, US & World

Rhode Island students travel to DC for March for Our Lives

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Layla Alves used red and blue markers to color in a handwritten sign on poster board: “You fear we’ll take your guns; we fear you’ll take our friend.”

She’ll bring the sign on a bus Friday night, traveling along with 34 other students from the Met High School in Providence to Washington, D.C. overnight. The group will participate in the March for Our Lives Saturday, a student-led demonstration for gun control laws, organized in the wake of the deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida last month.

“I couldn’t imagine losing my friend, never mind 17 of them,” Alves told Eyewitness News. “It could’ve been us.”

The students, clad in matching orange T-shirts, prepared signs on Friday afternoon with powerful messages like: “Am I next?”

“You never know where it can happen,” said Marilyn Resto, the student who made the sign.

Many of the students are not yet old enough to vote, making do for now with their voices. Malitey Mullings, who is 17, said this was a chance to fight for legislation that seems like common sense to her.

“At 18 we’re not even allowed to drink,” Mullings said. “So if we’re not allowed to drink, why should we be able to fire a gun?”

She questioned why responsible gun owners would not be on board with the changes.

“I think a lot of people who have a problem with this movement…think that we’re trying to take away something from them,” Mullings said. “When really, it’s just about making sure people who shouldn’t have them, not have them.”

Another group of about 100 students from the Providence Student Union are also traveling overnight to Washington to join the march, which was organized by Stoneman Douglas students just days after they survived the mass shooting.

Some the victims’ families, along with surviving shooting victims, traveled on the New England Patriots plane to get to Washington for the march. Patriots Owner Robert Kraft donated the plane, sending it to Fort Lauderdale to pick up the passengers. The plane will return on Sunday.

With thousands of young people converging on the capital city, Alves said she hopes this shooting will be the one that finally leads to change.

“We all hope that it will be different this time,” Alves said. “And I think it will be. The fact that it’s more youth standing up now and making a difference. Because we are the next generation.”

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Education, Local News, News, Providence, Top Video

Raimondo testifies in favor of school infrastructure bond

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Calling it her “top priority this year,” Gov. Gina Raimondo testified in support of a school bonding measure Thursday that would ask voters to approve $250 million to repair or rebuild aging school buildings across the state.

Raimondo spoke before the House Finance Committee, which is considering the borrowing plan as part of Raimondo’s budget proposal. She asked lawmakers to put it on the ballot this November. If passed, the $250 million would be borrowed over five years.

“It’s time that we come together and do the right thing to rebuild our schools,” Raimondo told the committee.

Raimondo, a Democrat, typically saves in-person testimony for high-priority agenda items. The last time she testified before a committee was in 2017, for her Rhode Island Promise scholarship program that would give two years of free college to Rhode Islanders. A scaled-back version of her original proposal ended up becoming law.

The school buildings proposal would combine the $250 million from the bonds with existing state and city funds, for a total of $1 billion invested in school buildings over the five years, according to the governor’s office.

In her testimony, Raimondo brought up a recent cold snap that led to burst pipes and other weather-related damage at schools earlier this winter, forcing some to close for multiple days.

“This is about making sure that every single school in every single community is warm, safe and dry,” Raimondo said, adding that the crumbling buildings are not unique to urban schools.

”There are schools falling apart in every single school district,” she said. “It’s East Greenwich, it’s Johnston, it’s Providence, it’s Portsmouth.”

The school construction plan came out of a task force formed last year after the Jacobs consulting firm released a study showing $627 million is needed to reach the “warm, safe and dry” criteria for Rhode Island public schools. $2.2 billion would be needed to bring schools to good condition.

“There is a cost to not doing more and not investing up front,” said General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, who co-chaired the School Buidling Task Force with Education Commissioner Ken Wagner.

“Our kids deserve it, our families deserve it, our teachers deserve it,” Magaziner told the committee Thursday. “And we don’t want to wait anymore.”

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza also testified before the committee, describing buckets collecting dripping rainwater at some Providence schools, and students bundled in winter coats due to poor insulation and dysfunctional heating systems.

”We are not investing in [kids] in the way that we should,” Elorza said.

Bill Murray, the mayor of Cumberland and vice-president of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, also testified in support.

“Safe and clean schools are important for our children,” Murray said. He lamented the fact that school building maintenance has been neglected over the years, leading to the problem at hand.

House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, who is also running for the Republican nomination for the governor, expressed skepticism about the funding for the school buildings plan.

“It’s not responsible,” she said in an interview with Eyewitness News. “We need to find other ways to budget.”

“Absolutely, we need to repair schools,” Morgan said. “I think there are better ways to do it.” She suggested foregoing $23 million in proposed bonds to help construct a new PawSox stadium, and putting the money towards school buildings instead.

Morgan also said she is introducing a bill to exempt school building repair and replacement from state prevailing wage requirements.

The school buildings plan is part of the budget being considered by the General Assembly for the fiscal year starting July 1. If passed, the bond would be on the ballot for voters this November.

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Local News, News, Top Video, Weather, Winter Weather

Snow day costs the state extra in overtime pay

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Some state employees were paid overtime to go to work during what turned out to be a mostly dry workday on Wednesday, after the decision to close state offices triggered overtime pay for essential workers.

Gov. Gina Raimondo elected to close state offices due to predicted snow, telling all non-essential employees to stay home. The decision was made Tuesday night, when forecasts called for a possible messy evening commute. The morning commute was expected to be fine.

According to a Department of Administration memo sent to department heads and payroll officers, non-essential workers on the 8:30 am to 4:30 pm shift stayed home and were compensated like a typical workday. Essential workers who needed to work during the snow day were paid time and a half, and correctional officers were paid double time and a half, per the union contract.

While the costs of Wednesday’s snow day has not yet been calculated, Department of Administration spokesperson Brenna McCabe said the personnel overtime costs from a previous storm-related state office closure totaled $310,000. Some of those costs were part of the RIDOT winter storm budget, which includes labor costs.

The $19.3 million RIDOT budget still had $3 million remaining for the season before Wednesday’s storm, according to a spokesperson.

Raimondo defended the decision to close state offices despite some criticism, after snow did not begin to fall until the afternoon, leaving the roads wet but not snowy during the evening commute.

”Storms are expensive,” Raimondo said in a noontime news conference. “We prepare for it, we err on the side of safety. Storms bring with them expenses: salt, plows, trucks, etc. We’re prepared for it and we knew that when we made that decision.”

The state relies on forecasts from the National Weather Service and the State Meteorologist when deciding whether to close state offices.

”We make decisions based on the information we have at the moment we make the decision,” EMA Director Peter Gaynor said in an interview Wednesday. “These things can go either way in a minute, so in this case I think we erred on the side of public safety, which we always do. Sometimes it turns out exactly how you think it is, and sometimes it doesn’t. I think that’s just weather in New England.”

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Blackstone Valley, Crime, Local News, News, Top Video

DCYF cuts ties with embattled Pawtucket group home agency

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PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — The state’s child welfare agency has cut ties with a Pawtucket group home agency that was the subject of a scathing report detailing drug use, lack of supervision and even sex trafficking at the agency’s three locations.

The Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) said Tuesday it was canceling its contract with Blackstone Valley Youth & Family Collaborative. The decision came days after a State House hearing where lawmakers grilled DCYF’s director about why the group home agency had not been shut down.

In a press release, DCYF said they had given Blackstone’s executive director, Daniel Brito, time to remedy the problems detailed in a report by the Office of the Child Advocate, a watchdog over DCYF. On March 1, a DCYF team went to review the corrective actions, and determined the concerns were not fully addressed.

”The safety and well-being of our youth is of the utmost importance,” said DCYF director Trista Piccola. “When we learn of incidents or concerns involving institutional care providers, or anyone who is charged with the care of children and youth in our state, we investigate and take action.”

DCYF will have 30 days to find alternative placements for the 5 young people currently living in the two group homes. A third location was also part of the Child Advocate report, but that house burned down last year and has not re-opened.

While DCYF had stopped sending new referrals to the group home agency, which houses youth ages 16-21, lawmakers at the House Oversight committee last week were shocked that the agency’s contract hadn’t immediately been terminated after the report came out in late January.

”It is my hope that when you leave here, that place will be shut down. Because it needs to be shut down. Even burnt down,” said Rep. Anastasia Williams, D-Providence, who stood up and left the meeting after making the remark.

Jennifer Griffith, the Child Advocate, told the committee she didn’t believe the agency could be rehabilitated. The report included revelations about widespread drug abuse, human trafficking and even weapons in the homes run by Blackstone.

A former Blackstone employee is also facing human trafficking charges, accused of housing underage trafficking victims at one of the group homes.

Blackstone Valley, Local News, News, Top Video

Pawtucket group home still open after Child Advocate report of drugs, sex trafficking

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PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — Two group homes run by an embattled Pawtucket business are still in operation despite a report released in late January recommending the agency be shut down due to drug use, human trafficking and a general lack of oversight.

The Office of the Child Advocate, which serves as a watchdog over the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), wrote in a scathing report in January that DCYF should cut ties with the Blackstone Valley Youth and Family Collaborative, which runs two group homes licensed by DCYF.

A third home, on North Bend Street, burned down last year and is also described in the report. The other two are still operating, despite the findings of the Child Advocate’s six month investigation. Blackstone houses young men ages 16 to 21 who are placed in the homes by DCYF.

“That home was being run like a criminal enterprise,” said Rep. Patricia Serpa, the chairwoman of the House Oversight committee. “I mean sex, drugs, you name it. And these are children that are supposed to under the oversight of DCYF? It was appalling.”

The Child Advocate, Jennifer Griffith, detailed the findings of the report at an House Oversight committee hearing Thursday night.

“I can’t see why they should continue to be allowed to have children there,” Griffith said. “They’re not supervising these youth.”

The report found that drugs, weapons, alcohol and stolen merchandise were found among the youth in the home, and staff members were not properly supervising the residents or reporting incidents to the police.

In 2017, staff member Raysean Williams was charged with human trafficking, accused of using the Amey Street house to house human trafficking victims, including underage girls under the care of DCYF.

The hearing became emotional at times, with Rep. Anastasia Williams, D-Providence, abruptly leaving the room after making an impassioned speech aimed at DCYF Director Trista Piccola.

“It is my hope that when you leave here, that place will be shut down,” she said before leaving. “Because it needs to be shut down. Even burnt down.”

“I can’t deal with this,” Williams said as she stood up and left the room.

Griffith agreed with lawmakers, adding that she had initiated steps with Family Court to get the residents at the group homes placed elsewhere.

“I do not think this place can be rehabilitated,” Griffith said. “I don’t know what we’re waiting for.”

Piccola said DCYF has formally suspended future referrals to Blackstone, but was giving executive director Daniel Brito 30 days to fix the problems.

“I’m not afraid to cut ties if we don’t believe that our kids are getting the care,” Piccola said in an interview with Eyewitness news.  “But we want to be fair, we want to give people an opportunity to remediate the concerns. They either will or they won’t. But we’re prepared to cut ties if they don’t do it.”

Piccola added that only one of the eight residents currently living at the two homes is underage. She also said the department was actively working to place youth with foster families instead of group homes.

Efforts to reach Brito for comment about his agency were unsuccessful.

The North Bend Street home has been rebuilt since the fire, but DCYF has not re-issued a license to Blackstone for that house to become a group home.

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Local News, News, Providence, Top Video

Man, woman found dead inside Providence home

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence police are investigating after a man and a woman were found dead of apparent gunshot wounds inside a city apartment.

According to Major David Lapatin, both bodies were found along with a gun inside 208 Jewett St.

Lapatin said someone called 911 just before 4 p.m. after hearing the gunshots.

Police are not looking for any suspects at this time, according to Lapatin.

The man and women have children, Lapatin said, but they were not in the apartment at the time and are now with family.

Police and the medical examiner’s office cleared the scene by 7 p.m.

Blackstone Valley, Local News, News, Top Video

Woonsocket to conduct school safety audits, build secure high school entrance

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WOONSOCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — Woonsocket’s school committee will form a special security subcommittee and conduct school building audits in the wake of the deadly shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

Superintendent Patrick McGee made the recommendations at Wednesday night’s school committee meeting, where he also briefed committee members on an incident at Hamlet Middle School on Feb. 16 involving bullets found in a bathroom.

Three students have now been arrested in the wake of that incident, which turned out not to be connected to any threat. Police said a janitor found the bullets in a boy’s bathroom, and a 13-year-old girl simultaneously yelled something about how there was going to be a school shooting.

The girl was arrested for disorderly conduct, and two 13-year-old boys were arrested for possession of ammunition. One of the boys is also facing a disorderly conduct charge.

The incident happened two days after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida where 17 people died. McGee said he was in a meeting with police about school safety when he got the call about the bullets found.

”You think the worst, but you hope for the best,” he said of his initial reaction as he rushed to the school.

Police locked down the school and searched it, and found no weapons.

At Wednesday night’s meeting, McGee suggested forming a subcommittee to specifically address security matters, and said audits would be conducted at all school buildings to determine what improvements can be made.

”I want people out in the community to know that the schools in Woonsocket are safe,” he said. “However, we are always looking at upgrading what we have.”

The school district is already planning an upgrade to the main entrance at Woonsocket High School, where a new “secure vestibule” will be constructed inside the entrance. Visitors will need to speak to a security officer through a reinforced glass window before being buzzed in.

The project costs $450,000, with the state reimbursing Woonsocket 88% of the cost.

”I would love to do things like this in all of our schools,” McGee said. “My goal is to make every school as safe and secure as possible.”

Local News, National, News, Providence, Top Video

Protesters urge federal government not to allow drilling off Rhode Island’s coast

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PROVIDENCE, R.I (WPRI) – Demonstrators supportive of the environment and clean waters swarmed a meeting of the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on Wednesday, asking the federal employees there not to allow companies to drill for oil and gas off of Rhode Island’s coastline.

The BOEM was in Providence to take public comment on a proposal by President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to open up 90% of offshore waters to oil and gas drilling. The drilling was banned in most of the nation’s waters under the Obama administration.

“Not on our watch,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said in a news conference before the meeting. “We’re going to stand up and make sure it doesn’t happen.”

“Opening up nearly all U.S. coasts to offshore drilling is an enormous leap back to the time when our energy policies turned a blind eye to pollution,” said Rep. Lauren Carson, a Democrat who represents Newport.

Protesters chanting “no drill, no spill” marched from the State House to the Marriott hotel, where the BOEM meeting was happening Wednesday afternoon. Demonstrators said they were concerned about oil rigs polluting Rhode Island waters, disrupting the fishing industry and possibly causing an oil spill.

“It’s a scary thought,” said Joel Gates of Glocester, a member of Save the Bay. “Hopefully it won’t happen, but we have to make sure our voices are heard.”

Bill Brown, chief environmental officer for BOEM, said the public comments taken from all the states would be part of a report and analysis conducted by BOEM for the Interior Department.

Brown said it was possible BOEM would recommend not to allow drilling in the waters off certain states, including Rhode Island.

“We’re here to listen, gather environmental information, do an analysis and environmental impact statement,” Brown said. “And for the purpose of really seeing whether some areas should be excluded from development.”

Brown said there is a lot of enthusiasm for offshore drilling in Alaska and Gulf Coast states, and more opposition in Atlantic states.

The draft proposal by the Interior Department is broad, including more than 90% of the country’s Outer Continental Shelf available to lease to oil and gas companies. But Brown said the final proposal could be more limited.

It’s unclear if there is interest from oil companies in drilling off Rhode Island, or if oil is even available there. Brown said no one has examined in decades whether there is oil off the New England coast.

Republican candidate for governor Patricia Morgan said she would not support offshore drilling in Rhode Island, but added that she thought it was unlikely that oil rigs would come to the Ocean State.

“I wouldn’t be in favor of it,” Morgan said. “We have to protect our fishing industry.”

Joe Trillo, the Republican-turned-independent candidate for governor who was President Trump’s honorary campaign chairperson for Rhode Island, also said he would not want to see drilling off Rhode Island’s shores.

Republican candidate Allan Fung’s campaign manager said Fung was not commenting on the proposed offshore drilling.

GOP candidate Giovanni Feroce was the most open to the proposal, saying he didn’t think Rhode Island should be against offshore drilling.

”In Rhode Island we should concentrate on supporting the industry by having companies here manufacture equipment, train workers and provide vessels carrying supplies to the operations,” Feroce said.

Local News, News, Politics, Top Video

Assault weapons ban has stalled in past General Assembly sessions

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A proposed ban on so-called ‘assault weapons’ introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly Tuesday is the latest attempt at a policy that has failed to pass in recent years.

The sponsors of the bill hope a fresh attempt at outlawing certain semiautomatic rifles will stick, as politicians and community activists work to change gun policy in the wake of the latest deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

“This is not a new battle for me,” said Sen. Josh Miller, D-Cranston, the lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate. “I think I’ve had a gun bill of one sort or another, including an assault weapons ban, since I was first elected.”

The legislation, sponsored on the House side by Rep. Jason Knight, would “restrict the possession and sale of semiautomatic weapons, limit ammunition magazines to ten or less rounds, and would make provisions for ‘grandfathered’ ownership of semiautomatic assault weapons,” according to a summary of the 11-page bill.

The semiautomatic rifles, commonly known as assault weapons, were once banned by the federal government, but the prohibition lapsed in 2004 and rifles like the AR-15 flooded the market. The AR-style rifles have been the weapon of choice for many mass shooters, including the most recent gunman at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

Since the weapons were legalized, some states—including Massachusetts—have chosen to ban the guns on their own. But multiple attempts in Rhode Island have been unsuccessful.

According to State House spokesperson Larry Berman, the most recent attempt at an assault weapons ban was in the Senate in 2015. Similar bills were introduced in both the House and Senate in 2014 and 2013, all of which were “held for further study,” languishing in committee without a vote.

Miller hopes 2018 will be different.

“This is a different era with a different group of partners, and I’m really glad to have them,” he said at a rally for a number of gun control bills at the State House Tuesday.

“Enough was enough, even before Florida,” he told the crowd.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who is sponsoring another gun bill related to “red flags,” is not sold on the assault weapons ban.

“I, myself, would have to be convinced that that’s actually going to help people,” Mattiello said in an interview last week.

He said he believes removing guns from people with behavioral health issues would be more effective than banning certain styles of weapons.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio has not taken a stance on the assault weapons ban. Spokesperson Greg Pare said he needed time to review the language of the bill.

Ruggerio is also supporting the red flag bill, which would create a new tool for courts to take guns away from people who are deemed at risk to commit violence.

“I think most Rhode Islanders agree that we should balance constitutional rights with the need to keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous individuals,” Ruggerio said in a statement Tuesday.

Both Mattiello and Ruggerio received A+ ratings from the National Rifle Association in 2016.

In addition to the assault weapons ban and the red flag bill, Rhode Island lawmakers will also consider a ban on bump stocks and an a bill to raise the age to own a rifle to 21.

Local News, News, Politics, Top Video

Raimondo signs ‘red flag’ policy aimed at disarming dangerous people

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WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Gina Raimondo has signed an executive order establishing a statewide “red flag” policy, ordering police to “take all available legal steps” to remove guns from dangerous individuals.

The executive order is more narrow than a proposed red flag bill in the General Assembly, also supported by Raimondo, which would create a new “extreme risk protective order” and give the courts power to take guns away from possibly violent people for a year.

Raimondo, a Democrat, said the deadly mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14 increased the urgency for the policy to be implemented immediately.

”We cannot wait a minute longer for Washington to take action to prevent gun violence,” Raimondo said, adding that she has lowered the flags to half-mast nine times for mass shootings since becoming governor.

The executive order directs the Rhode Island State Police to investigate any reports of red flags, including threats, posts on social media, recent acquisition of firearms or suspicious statements. After an investigation, which would include speaking to the person, police could remove firearms from the person’s home using existing law or ask them to surrender their firearms.

PDF: Read the executive order in full »

Raimondo emphasized that new legislation is required to give police additional powers to disarm individuals, which the executive order does not do. Existing law prohibits gun possession by convicted felons, convicted domestic abusers (including for misdemeanors), people who have been adjudicated as a danger to themselves and others due to mental illness, and people subject to a domestic abuse restraining order.

The executive order also calls for police to refer the person to a mental health facility and initiate criminal proceedings if appropriate.

“We have no doubt that having a Red Flag Law in Rhode Island will help us keep guns out of the hands of people when they are desperate and/or dangerous,” State Police Col. Ann Assumpico said in a statement. “In addition, we hope that away the opportunity to use a gun will prevent these individuals with a new opportunity — to seek the help and treatment they need.”

The executive order tees up broader legislation introduced in the General Assembly to give courts the power to remove guns from a person who has been deemed by a judge to be dangerous. The bill, introduced in the House Friday and scheduled to be introduced in the Senate Tuesday, would create the new protective order for people in danger of committing violence.

“This is not about taking guns away from people who are law-abiding citizens,” Raimondo said. “This is about keeping Rhode Islanders safe.”

The House bill would allow police, the attorney general’s office or family/household members to petition for the protective order. A hearing would be held within 21 days to determine if the person is indeed dangerous, and the guns would need to be surrendered to police if the order is put in place. The bill would also allow for a temporary protective order from owning guns while awaiting the hearing.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, a Democrat who has been backed by the NRA, has signed on as a co-sponsor to the legislation.

“I believe that the Second Amendment’s an important constitutional right,” Mattiello said Friday. “However, kids are being shot in school. So that gives you pause, and it makes you think about it and you have to try and find the most effective ways of dealing with it.”

After the executive order was signed Monday, Mattiello said in a statement: “I was proud to co-sponsor the Red Flag proposal and it will be given a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee in the near future. It is positive that the Governor is placing attention on the Red Flag issue, but the law need to be changed by the General Assembly so law enforcement has the tools to take firearms away from individuals who pose a danger to themselves and the public.”

The Senate version is being introduced by Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, the chamber’s No. 3 Democrat.

Mike Stenhouse, the CEO of the conservative RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity, said his group supports red flag policies in general, but accused Raimondo of “trying to exploit recent events to advance an extreme political agenda,” and expressed concerns about due process rights for gun owners.

”While the Center supports the ‘red flag’ concept, it urges the General Assembly lawmakers to ensure that any new laws include adequate civil rights protections, with a high bar clearly set, and due process assured, before anyone’s constitutional rights are nullified or anyone’s property is seized,” Stenhouse said.”

“There’s no real opportunity for the person to advocate for themselves,” added Justin Katz, the research director for the center. “They are instantly on the defense. It’s up to a single judge to determine that they can take this person’s guns away.”

Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who is running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination to challenge Raimondo, said he could support the red flag bill if due process rights are respected.

“There has to be some kind of trained medical professional involved in that process that provides the opinion, that solidifies the opinion and the observations,” Fung said in an interview with Eyewitness News.

The National Rifle Association has not responded to repeated requests for comment on the legislation.

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