Bump stock ban gets tangled in legislative process

DOVER — On March 15, the Senate passed legislation that would ban bump stocks, but the vote came with a catch. Senators attached an amendment weakening the penalty for possessing or selling such devices, which accelerate the rate of gun fire.

With the amendment, the bill passed overwhelmingly.

The House of Representatives had already passed an unamended version, meaning the change sent the bill back to the House. That sparked the ire of the main sponsor, House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, a Bear Democrat.

“Yesterday, thousands of Delaware students walked out of school to clearly state that leaders need to take action on mass gun violence,” Rep. Longhurst said in a statement at the time. “They came to Legislative Hall to testify in favor of several gun control bills that will help reduce gun violence in our state.

“Today, we let them all down. We need to do what’s best for public safety, not what is politically expedient.

“Here’s the bottom line: bump stocks are dangerous and deadly. They are not toys, and this is not a game. They are destructive weapons like bombs, bombshells, firearm silencers, sawed-off shotguns and machine guns. They have no practical purpose in hunting, home defense or sport.”

Rep. Longhurst pledged to consider amending the bill, although she made no guarantee about what form any change would take.

Thirty-seven calendar and eight legislative days later, the bump stock ban remains before the House. Delaware is officially more than halfway through the 2018 legislative session, with 24 of 46 regularly scheduled days in the rearview mirror.

“I’m left sort of scratching my head wondering why it is that we’re not going ahead with this piece of legislation that when it was introduced was sort of like the most material thing that had to happen this year,” Sen. Anthony Delcollo, a Marshallton Republican, said during a town hall on gun control Monday.

It isn’t the only gun measure awaiting action — far from it.

Since January, lawmakers have introduced measures to prohibit the sale of “assault-style weapons,” criminalize magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, raise the age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21 and create measures to take firearms from individuals with mental illnesses. The mental illness bills are much less controversial than the others, which have sparked demonstrations from gun rights advocates.

Whether the General Assembly will make those bills law is a test of the strength of the Democratic Party, which controls both chambers of the Legislature, as well as the governor’s office. The Delaware Democratic Party platform calls for non-specific “common sense gun safety” reforms, while the national platform urges, among other things, placing greater prohibitions on assault weapons and preventing mentally ill individuals from possessing guns.

But not every Democrat is onboard, and it remains to be seen if the governor and top Democratic lawmakers can coax, coerce or otherwise convince members to support the pending legislation.

Wednesday, Gov. John Carney for the first time this year signed a gun control measure into law, approving a noncontroversial bill that ups the penalty for straw purchases.

Afterward, he appeared to urge lawmakers to pass the pending gun bills, referring to them as a “package.”

“One of the things I think that is clear is that none of the pieces of legislation on their own will solve the problem. Each of them, though, taken together are a tool which will help us provide better safety in our schools and in the streets of our communities,” he told reporters.

The age bill, which passed the House in a vote that fell mostly along party lines, was set to be voted on in the Senate March 29, the last day before a two-week break.

But with a rift in the Democratic caucus apparent, members instead tabled the bill after some floor discussion.

The proposal was initially placed on the agenda for last Thursday but was yanked Wednesday night.

Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, a New Castle Democrat, said House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a Democrat from Rehoboth Beach, asked him to hold the measure. Rep. Schwartzkopf is the bill’s main sponsor.

“Sen. McBride and I are working together to ensure that we pass a meaningful bill that will help save lives,” Rep. Schwartzkopf, who was unavailable to comment directly due to a knee injury that caused him to miss session Thursday, said in a statement. “Federal law already requires a person to be 21 to buy a handgun, and our bill would make that age consistent for rifles in the vast majority of cases. We hope to move the bill forward as soon as possible.”

It appears likely that proposal will be amended and sent back to the House in a repeat of the bump stock vote.

It seemed the assault weapon prohibition would be in the spotlight last week, as it was included on the Senate Judicial & Community Affairs Committee agenda, but it was removed several days beforehand.

Main sponsor Sen. Bryan Townsend, a Newark Democrat, said it will not be voted on in committee next week.

Simply getting out of committee is in question for the bill, arguably the most controversial measure of the 2018 session.

Sen. Townsend said he wanted to consider all the feedback he has received on the proposal.

Asked if the General Assembly was being too slow to hold committee hearings and floor votes on the gun bills, he replied that legislators “can move much more quickly to make our gun laws much more reasonable” and praised the governor for calling for passage.

Gov. Carney on Wednesday said his office was working with lawmakers to try and garner the necessary support for the proposals.

The magazine ban is likely to be heard in committee May 2, main sponsor Rep. Larry Mitchell, a Democrat from Elsmere, said. That proposal may see an amendment increasing the number of allowable rounds as part of a compromise with opponents.

As for bump stocks, Rep. Longhurst appears to have backed off her earlier statement somewhat.

“I think there’s been a lot of people on both sides of the issue and everybody’s listening to both sides of the issue and I think it’s tough for everybody to make these decisions, so I don’t think delaying them is a bad thing.

“I think it gives the state of Delaware and people on both sides” time to share their views, she said.

Rep. Longhurst said she has not decided when she will put the bill on the floor or what, if any, amendments she may introduce.

The General Assembly may also debate measures to change the crime of unlawfully permitting a child access to a firearm to the broader unsafe storage of a firearm and a bipartisan proposal to prevent anyone on the federal terrorist watchlist to buy or keep a gun.

Some lawmakers are doubtless keeping two dates in mind: Sept. 6 and Nov. 6.

The former is the primary election, and the latter is the general election. Legislators may vote a certain way to avoid riling up their base or their district, and how lawmakers fall on the gun bills will surely be used as ammunition for individuals hoping to unseat them.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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