Amended bump stock bill passes Senate, but may see more changes

DOVER — For the third time in as many months, the General Assembly amended legislation that would ban bump stocks, continuing a long-running saga.

At a minimum, the bill will end up having been approved by the Senate twice and House thrice, and the game of legislative ping-pong may not be over: The bill’s main sponsor indicated after the vote she might seek to amend the measure in the House to strip the change enacted by the Senate Tuesday.

At issue is House Bill 300, which would criminalize possession or transfer of bump stocks, trigger cranks or other devices that accelerate the rate of fire.

While little-known a year ago, bump stocks have been banned by several states since an October shooting in Las Vegas, which saw a gunman reportedly use several bump stock-enabled firearms to kill 58 people attending a country music concert. It was the deadliest mass shooting in American history.

Delaware is seeking to join those states in restricting devices that allow semi-automatic firearms to function more like automatic weapons, but while basically everyone in Legislative Hall agrees bump stocks should be banned, they differ as to the exact nature of the prohibition.

On Tuesday the Senate reduced the penalty for the first offense of possessing a bump stock from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class B one. A Class A misdemeanor has a maximum sentence of one year in jail, while the penalty for a Class B is up to six months.

Though both Democratic and Republican senators agreed the compromise is a good one, House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, a Bear Democrat who is the bill’s chief sponsor, saw it differently. Asked if the change was acceptable to her, she said she was unsure and would considering introducing yet another amendment.

“To me, (the original proposal) was a no-brainer, so I don’t understand why it’s gone through these many versions,” she told reporters.

“But everybody obviously has a different opinion and react differently to the tragedies that happened out there, and I think some people look at the tragedies, some people look at the guns and then you have to find the two and figure out which one is going to work, and I guess that’s why as the prime sponsor I have to figure out what’s the best thing that we could do for the state, and I need some time to think about it.”

The original version passed by the House in March classified possession or transfer of a bump stock as a Class E felony. One week later, the Senate amended the bill, making a first offense a Class B misdemeanor and a second offense a Class G felony, with added penalties for use during a felony.

The alteration sparked the ire of Rep. Longhurst: In a statement, she said legislators “let … down” students who walked out of class to call for additional gun control measures the day before and later said she was considering amending out the Senate change.

More than six weeks later, the House overwhelmingly passed a modified version, making a first offense of possession a Class A misdemeanor while any subsequent instance, as well as acts of selling, buying or otherwise transferring bump stocks, would be a Class E felony. A Republican amendment also created a buyback program.

The Senate picked the bill up Tuesday after a three-week legislative break, with most Democrats hoping the measure would move on to the governor’s desk. That didn’t happen, however, as senators of both parties objected to the increased penalty for possession.

Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, a Georgetown Republican, noted the bill would place possession in the same criminal classification as offenses like incest, and Sen. Bruce Ennis, a Smyrna Democrat who has broken with his caucus to oppose gun control measures before, said he did not anticipate supporting the new version.

After some brief debate, the Senate tabled the bill, and it was expected the chamber would pick it up today.

Instead, two hours later, senators resumed discussion on the measure, with Sen. Pettyjohn introducing an amendment lessening the penalty for a first instance of possessing a bump stock or trigger crank. The amendment was approved with ease, and the bill passed the chamber unanimously.

“We talked about it in caucus, the Republicans talked about it in caucus and we came back and said there’s no reason to hold it up. We want the bill to pass so it’s done,” Senate Majority Leader Margaret Rose Henry, a Wilmington Democrat, said after the Senate concluded business Tuesday.

But Rep. Longhurst, who was not involved in Tuesday’s discussions on the amendment, was unhappy with the process behind it.

“I think historically what we’ve done with the House and Senate is communicate on a closer basis than we did with this bill, so I think there’s a breakdown in communication that needs to be worked out between the House and the Senate so that this doesn’t go back and forth,” she said.

While she said it was “encouraging” senators did not change other aspects of the bill, Rep. Longhurst noted several times she will need time to decide her next course of action. The House likely will not vote on the bill this week.

House Bill 300 isn’t the only gun legislation that has stalled in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly. A bill that would raise the age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21 has been awaiting a vote in the Senate for more than two months, with supporters trying to ensure they can defeat several Republican amendments that would weaken the bill. Meanwhile, a proposed ban on the sale of “assault-style” weapons is set to be heard in committee today in its first action since it was introduced in March.

Gov. John Carney has spoken in favor of the various gun control measures, which have drawn a strong response from Delawareans, both for and against the proposals.

The clock is ticking for officials hoping to enact greater limits on firearms: The General Assembly’s last regularly scheduled day is June 30.

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