Rhode Island’s preemption statute, Rhode Island General Laws § 11-47-58, provides that “[t]he control of firearms, ammunition, or their component parts regarding their ownership, possession, transportation, carrying, transfer, sale, purchase, purchase delay, licensing, registration, and taxation shall rest solely with the state, except as otherwise provided in [Rhode Island General Laws Chapter 47. Weapons].”
Section 11-47-58 (enacted in 1986) may have been intended to supersede section 45-6-1 (enacted in 1896), which allows local governments to pass ordinances to protect the public safety. Section 45-6-1(a) states in relevant part that “[t]own and city councils may…make and ordain all ordinances and regulations for their respective towns and cities, not repugnant to law, which they deem necessary for the safety of their inhabitants from…firearms….” Note, however, that the Rhode Island Legislature last amended section 45-6-1 in 1999 and did not remove the language relating to firearms.
Sullivan v. Town of Coventry and Town of Middletown, 2010 R.I. Super. LEXIS 53 (Mar. 17, 2010), confirms that section 45-6-1 remains valid authority for cities to regulate firearms. In Sullivan, Middletown sought to regulate the use of firearms on portions of its shoreline near popular beaches, because hunters were discharging weapons close to the shore and endangering beachgoers. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) sought an injunction to declare the ordinance invalid on the grounds that state law preempts gun ordinances. The court found that Middletown properly used the authority delegated under section 45-6-1(a) to regulate firearm discharge because such regulation is a matter of local concern, regulating firearms in the interest of public safety has traditionally been the domain of municipalities, and the municipalities’ unique ability to identify and respond to local threats to public safety weighs against uniform statewide regulations.1 The court also found that Middletown’s ordinance did not conflict with or contradict state hunting laws or DEM’s authority to regulate hunting across the state.2
There are no cases interpreting section 11-47-58.
Finally, section 11-47-50 prohibits the discharge of firearms, BB guns, or other contraptions capable of discharging bullets, shot or missiles within the “compact part of any city or town” except on land owned or occupied by the firearm user. Cities and towns may, however, enact ordinances that permit the discharge of such firearms on non-posted lands within the jurisdiction.3