Assault weapon ban fails in Delaware Senate panel

DOVER — Legislation to ban the sale, purchase or transfer of “assault-style” weapons failed to make it out of a Senate committee Wednesday — a victory for the hundred or so Delawareans who showed up to protest the measure and the many more who made their opposition clear on social media or in calls and emails to legislators.

At the same time the bill’s failure is a blow to gun control advocates, including Gov. John Carney, who publicly urged lawmakers to pass the measure.

Despite the General Assembly being controlled by the Democrats, the proposal could not even pass the first test.

While Sens. Margaret Rose Henry and Robert Marshall, both Wilmington Democrats, backed the measure, Sens. Bruce Ennis, a Smyrna Democrat, and Greg Lavelle and Dave Lawson, Republicans from Sharpley and Marydel, respectively, did not sign it out of the Senate Judicial & Community Affairs Committee.

Although it’s possible supporters could opt for the little-used suspension of rules or petition to force the legislation to the floor or could seek to have it reassigned to a panel that might vote more favorably, the success of any of those measures is very slim. In other words, the legislation is all but dead.

Bryan Townsend

“I think this bill deserves a vote on the full Senate floor. Whatever that takes, I think it’s a big enough public policy issue with enough public interest that whatever it takes to have that bill come to the floor, it should be able to happen,” main sponsor Sen. Bryan Townsend, a Newark Democrat, said after the hearing.

Arguably the most controversial of several gun control bills introduced this year, Senate Bill 163 would prohibit individuals from buying, selling, receiving or transferring 45 specific long guns and 19 handguns, as well as “copycat” weapons.

Law enforcement and individuals acting on behalf of the federal government, including members of the military, would be exempt, and a proposed amendment would allow an individual to pass along an assault weapon to a close family member.

Generally, an individual would be prohibited from bringing an assault weapon into the state if the bill is passed. Such firearms would be restricted outside of specific locations, such as a gun owner’s home, a shooting range, a gun show or a property the owner grants permission for a gun to be transported to.

Violating the measure would be a Class F felony, and a subsequent offense within 10 years of a prior one would be a Class E felony. The recommended sentence for both is no more than one year of probation, according to Delaware sentencing guidelines.

While a huge crowd turned out Wednesday, just 13 members of the public shared their views because the committee allotted only 40 minutes for testimony. Supporters spoke of the impact the bill could have in limiting mass shootings, but opponents attacked it as unconstitutional and unreasonable.

“All the evidence worldwide says disarmament costs lives,” Izzy Sarmad said.

Rick Armitage, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, touted two mental health bills — one of which became law in April while the other is currently going through the legislative process — as a better alternative to keep guns away from individuals intent on causing harm.

There were also questions over how people would prove they legally purchased prohibited weapons.

A remark from Sen. Townsend that individuals who bought assault weapons before the ban could get their guns registered with police sparked an uproar from the crowd. Sen. Lavelle later cited the fact the bill does not specify how someone can prove he or she did not violate any laws in obtaining a firearm as one of the reasons for his opposition, saying in a statement the measure “is too important to not be fully fleshed out prior to passage.”

While the Second Amendment guarantees “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms,” several people noted the Delaware Constitution has a stronger defense of gun rights. That document states Delawareans have “the right to keep and bear arms for the defense of self, family, home and State, and for hunting and recreational use.”

Despite that, Sen. Townsend is confident the measure is legal, pointing to Maryland’s 2013 assault weapons ban, which his bill is based off of. That restriction was upheld by a federal court.

However, the court that ruled on Maryland’s law was the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which does not have jurisdiction over Delaware.

Noting “the status quo on gun safety is not working,” Sen. Townsend urged his colleagues to vote to send the bill to the full Senate.

“This bill is about one incremental step toward making our communities, schools and gathering spaces safer, so that parents don’t have to send their child to school each day and we don’t have to gather for worship each week, go the movie theater or attend outside gatherings wondering if we are at unnecessary risk because our gun laws allow purchase of such uniquely lethal firearms on demand,” he said.

He maintained the bill has the support of a majority of Delawareans despite supporters being heavily outnumbered at the committee hearing Wednesday.

Sixty-seven percent of respondents in a national Gallup poll released March 1 said the nation’s gun laws should be stricter, and 67 percent of people surveyed in a Feb. 20 Quinnipiac University poll said they are in favor of a ban on the sale of assault weapons. That’s up 19 percent from an October Gallup poll, although the Feb. 20 result came less than a week after a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

A few high school students spoke in favor of the proposal Wednesday, stressing it would give them and many others peace of mind.

But supporters were dwarfed at Legislative Hall by individuals against the bill.

Sen. Lavelle, who Sen. Townsend considered the swing vote, issued a statement afterward explaining his reasoning for voting not to release the bill.

“As we heard repeatedly today, this piece of legislation clearly violates Article 1, Section 20 of the Delaware Constitution. Unlike many on the other side of the aisle, I consider the Constitution the first hurdle any piece of legislation must get over, and this bill clearly fails that test,” he said.

“There are firearms listed in this legislation that are used for the defense of home, for hunting and for recreation. All of those uses are constitutionally guaranteed.”

Sen. Lavelle accused President Pro Tempore David McBride, a New Castle Democrat, of hoping “to pin its demise on me for political gain in an election year,” noting the president pro tem could have placed the bill in any number of committees.

Sen. McBride could not be immediately reached for comment.

Sens. Townsend, Henry and Marshall in a statement of their own expressed deep disappointment over the outcome — and also appeared to take a shot at Sen. Lavelle.

“We respect that some are vocally opposed to this legislation, but it’s also true that a majority of the country supports banning the sale of assault weapons, along with roughly half of all gun-owning households. Unfortunately, that majority’s voice went unheard today — regardless of anyone’s attempts to divert responsibility for their votes,” they said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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