Bill banning untraceable guns sent to House floor

DOVER — Nearly 30 members of the public turned out to speak Wednesday for a committee hearing on legislation to outlaw “ghost guns,” homemade firearms considered to be untraceable because they lack key identifying markings.

After about 50 minutes of public comments, the House Administration Committee voted 3-2 on party lines to send the measure to the full chamber. It’s not expected to be voted on immediately because the main sponsor is working on amendments.

Filed last week, House Bill 277 would prohibit any gun that has no serial number, is “constructed in a shape or configuration such that it does not resemble a firearm,” is made “entirely of non-metal substances” or is otherwise undetectable by metal detectors.

The measure is intended to counter the rise of 3D-printed firearms, which authorities say are dangerous because they can be built at home and made to be almost impossible to track, giving individuals prohibited from having guns another avenue to obtain deadly weapons.

While opponents only slightly outnumbered backers Thursday, the gap between the two sides is as wide as an ocean.

To proponents, the legislation is common sense, the kind of thing that can prevent criminals from acquiring illegal guns. But others see it as an unconstitutional attack on their civil liberties, something that will be a major nuisance or worse for gun enthusiasts but do nothing to stop crime.

“Are we going to outlaw cutting down hickory trees so we can make bows and arrows?” asked Carroll Boone.

Under the measure, federally licensed gun dealers and manufacturers would be able to possess and transfer unfinished parts if the frame or receiver displays the manufacturer’s name and the serial number. The restrictions also would not apply to members of the military or law enforcement who are authorized to have covert guns.

Possessing an unfinished firearm would be a Class D felony, which carries with it a maximum sentence of eight years in prison. Making a covert or untraceable gun would also be a Class D offense, while simply having such a weapon would fall under a Class E felony. The highest allowable sentence for a Class E crime is five years in jail.

House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, is drafting changes to the bill that would exempt muzzle-loading rifles and antique firearms, grant more privileges to dealers and push back the effective date to give individuals time to add serial numbers to currently untraceable guns.

The measure is supported by the Department of Justice, the Delaware State Police and Gov. John Carney.

“There is no valid argument for anyone to possess unregistered, untraceable, undetectable firearms,” said Wyatt Patterson, a student activist.

While several people questioned how common ghost guns are and whether one has been used in a crime in Delaware — the Department of Justice does not know how prevalent such firearms are — others rejected that argument. Advocates urged lawmakers not to wait until they become a problem in the First State, drawing to mind the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Untraceable firearms have rapidly become more popular and been used in multiple shootings around the country, including in 2013 in Santa Monica, California. Three alleged white supremacists arrested last week in Delaware and Maryland had built a powerful firearm from parts, according to the FBI.

“Part of why we supposedly feel safe in this room today is that we passed through a metal detector on our way into this building,” said Mara Gorman, a member of Moms Demand Action. “Anyone carrying a ghost gun could come in here with it or into an airport or into any other public place that screens entrants because of the threat of violence. Do you want to live under that kind of threat? I don’t.”

But plenty of people pushed back against those claims, painting the bill as an enabler of tyranny. Several people referenced the Holocaust, in part because the committee considered a bill relating to teaching students about genocide before the gun measure.

“I guess my question to you is what are you going to do with all the bodies?” asked David Skinner, invoking Hitler and Stalin and the millions they killed.

Nadine Frost relayed her experience with an abusive ex-husband, saying the stalking stopped only when he saw she was armed.

“People fear what they do not know and do not understand,” she said, urging lawmakers to focus on educating residents about guns instead of banning them.

Others called for the state to enforce existing laws rather than make new ones and expressed concerns the measure would turn law-abiding gun hobbyists into criminals.

An April poll conducted by SurveyUSA on behalf of Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund reported 71 percent of recipients support “making it illegal to possess or manufacture undetectable, plastic firearms that can be made at home with a 3-D printer.”

Legislation being drafted by Rep. Kevin Hensley, R-Townsend, would restrict individuals from possessing most guns that lack a serial number or violate the federal Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988. Breaking it would be a Class F felony, which carries a maximum sentence of three years in jail.

That bill is not expected to advance.