Superior Court judge denies constitutional challenges to state’s concealed-carry statutes

Eight defendants denied their motions to have charges of carrying a pistol without permit dismissed

By: - June 30, 2023 5:03 pm

Eight defendants charged with carrying a pistol without a permit tried to get their cases dismissed, arguing that Rhode Island’s permitting statutes violated their right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment. A judge denied their attorney’s motion for dismissal.(Getty image)

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha is celebrating a case his office said sought to challenge the state’s concealed carry laws, though gun-rights advocates say it’s not the victory the AG thinks it is.

At the center of this ruling were eight male defendants charged with carrying a pistol without a permit. They ranged in age from 19 to 35 and four were under 21 when they were arrested between 2021 and 2022. In Rhode Island, an individual must be at latest 21 to get a permit.

All eight defendants were arrested in individual instances by one of our law enforcement agencies — either Rhode Island State Police or the Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls police departments.

According to the AG’s office, the defendants sought to get their cases dismissed. Their argument was that Rhode Island’s permitting statutes were unconstitutional because they violated their right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment.

All motions were denied by Superior Court Judge Kristen Rodgers in a bench ruling on June 23 — one year to the day the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) made its controversial New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen decision. The June 2022 ruling held that the Second Amendment protects a person’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home.

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As a result, the cases against the eight defendants can proceed.

“This Office is fighting on many fronts to ensure that Rhode Island has common sense gun laws that our police and prosecutors can use to keep Rhode Islanders safe,” Neronha said in a June 26 statement. “This decision affirms that Bruen does not change an important piece of Rhode Island’s concealed-carry permitting framework – that persons need to be 21 years old to carry a gun. I am thankful to the Court for its careful consideration of this matter, and ruling accordingly.”

Glenn Valentine, the president of the Rhode Island Second Amendment PAC, said in an interview Wednesday that the ruling is not as big a win for the AG as his office claims.

“He’s making something out of nothing,” Valentine said. “It was eight guys arrested without permits. Their attorney basically threw out this Hail Mary — there’s no way this would ever go the distance.”

Rhode Island’s concealed-carry statutes are more restrictive than those of the majority of U.S. states, says Bryant University Professor of Politics, Law, and Society Gregg Lee Carter. (Photo courtesy of Bryant University)

Gregg Lee Carter, a Bryant University sociology professor who researches gun control, disagreed with that assessment. He observed “it was an important affirmation of the right of a state, here Rhode Island, to protect the public health and safety of its citizens with a set of common sense gun statutes.”

He added that similar, and even stricter, statutes were the norm for almost all states until the last decade of the 20th century.  

Under Rhode Island General law, residents can apply for licenses to carry a concealed pistol or revolver either from their municipality (often through the local police department), or via the AG’ office.

While the law dictates that a city or town “shall” issue a concealed carry permit to a qualified applicant who is at least 21 years old, the AG’s office “may” issue a license or permit “upon a proper showing of need.”

“The Rhode Island concealed-carry statutes are more restrictive than those of the majority of U.S. states, which have either no requirement to have a permit to carry a concealed weapon or have a weak ‘shall issue’ law — essentially saying that if a person passes a federal background check to buy a handgun that they have the right to carry it in a concealed fashion,” Carter said.

What does this mean for the Bruen ruling?

Carter said the Superior Court decision essentially ignores Bruen, while still preserving the integrity of previous SCOTUS rulings which agree that individuals have a right to own a gun, but that this right is not unlimited.

“These rulings were turned topsy-turvy with the confusing 2022 Supreme Court’s Bruen decision, which ruled that current gun control laws must be ‘consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation,’” he said. “There were no AR-15 assault weapons in 1791 when the second amendment was ratified — and those convicted of crimes were not restricted from owning guns.”

Valentine, meanwhile, contends that the Superior Court ruling does not supersede Bruen. 

“The decision before the court in Bruen wasn’t about whether a scheme to license people is unconstitutional,” he said. “The whole basis for that case was that it had to be non discretionary.”


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Christopher Shea
Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea covers politics, the criminal justice system and transportation for the Rhode Island Current.