The small town of Exeter, Rhode Island has no violent crime. Since 2011, their town sergeant—filling a largely ceremonial role—has been doing the background checks for concealed carry permits, which the town clerk approved since there is no Exeter Police Department. They’ve been doing it this way since 2011 to fill a statutory gap. No other town clerk in the state has such authority.
Currently, Rhode Island has a bizarre hybrid of “shall issue” and “may issue” concealed carry laws, where local authorities are technically “shall issue” (meaning that they should issue a permit unless they have a good reason to stop issuance), where the Attorney General’s office is “may issue” (meaning that an applicant must justify getting a permit). In practice most local authorities simply bow to the power of the state, making Rhode Island a de facto “may issue” state.
For years, Exeter followed this practice, but began processing them themselves when local FFL holder and former councilman Dan Patterson noticed a statutory requirement for the town to issue the permits and suggested that the town could face expensive lawsuits. The council adopted the policy that made it much easier for Exeter residents to get permits, as the Attorney General typically only issues such permits to retired law enforcement.
Attempts to revert Exeter’s “shall issue” permitting process to the state’s “may issue” Attorney General had led to a bitter recall election targeting 4 of the 5 sitting council members.
Former Town Councilman Dan Patterson, whose local garden center sells everything from scented candles to your choice of firearm, admits he opened a “can of worms.”
But that description doesn’t begin to capture the deep fissure that grew here over gun rights. The rift widened to include allegations that council members lied, pursued private agendas and violated oaths of office before leading to an unprecedented effort to expel the town’s leadership.
This Saturday, Exeter residents will vote whether to recall from office four of the five Town Council members because they want the attorney general to handle all local applications to carry concealed weapons. The recall effort is only the second in recent state history and the first of this scale.
At it’s core, the Exeter recall is the larger “may issue/shall issue” debate in a microcosm, and yet, the four Democrats targeted for recall are blaming the Tea Party, the Rhode Island Firearm Owners’ League (RIFOL), and other “outside special interests,” even though that claim is as dubious as it was for the locally-driven Morse/Giron/Hudak Senate recalls in Colorado.
December 14, we’ll find out where Exeter’s voters stand on the issue.