- Associated Press - Thursday, May 29, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Gun purchases in Rhode Island would be subject to an additional 10 percent tax under legislation pending in the Senate that critics say amounts to a punishment on law-abiding citizens.

Under the bill reviewed Thursday by the Finance Committee, the tax on guns and ammunition would go into a special fund and be distributed to police departments throughout the state. The funds would then be distributed to nonprofit groups that work to reduce crime and violence. The local police chief or top municipal official would decide which organizations get the money.

“This is a way for us to create safer communities,” Sen. Gayle Goldin, a Providence Democrat and the lead bill sponsor, told the panel.

Under current state law, gun purchases are subject only to the regular 7 percent sales tax.

The tax would bring in up to $1.35 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1, according to state budget office estimates.

Most of the testimony Thursday was in opposition to the bill. Critics said the tax posed a financial burden, and that the money collected could be directed to anti-gun groups.

Steven Lord, an engineer from North Kingstown who has been a recreational shooter for about 10 years, said he felt insulted when he heard about the measure.

“There’s no correlation between the people who buy and use guns legally … and the people who use them for criminal purposes,” he said. “You’re really poking at the wrong people in a nasty and negative way.”

Darin Goens, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, similarly called the legislation a “punitive attack on gun owners.”

Sen. Edward O’Neill, D-Lincoln, a member of the committee, noted that people seeking to avoid the tax could buy firearms over the state border. The tax would put Rhode Island at a competitive disadvantage at a time when the state is trying to be more so, he said.

Rev. Donald Anderson, of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, testified in favor of the legislation, calling the tax a “creative” and “realistic” approach to addressing the problem of gun violence. He said there are effective anti-violence programs that could do more good with additional funding.

The tax would be allocated to police departments proportionally based on the number of “total offenses” in the cities and towns, though the bill doesn’t specify what kind of offenses.

The panel voted to hold the bill for further study.