Delaware gun bills stall in committee

DOVER — Three controversial gun bills will not be released from committee, meaning they are essentially dead.

The measures, which were discussed before a packed house in the Senate Executive Committee Wednesday, would have prohibited a variety of semi-automatic firearms classified as “assault weapons,” criminalized magazines capable of holding more than 15 rounds and established a permitting process to buy a gun.

While the bills faced an uphill climb to become law, defeat in the first real test of the legislative process is a surprising outcome and a big blow to gun control advocates. Opponents on the committee still could reverse their decision and send the bills to the entire Senate, but the odds of such a change of opinion appear slim.

In order to release a measure from committee, a majority of members on the panel must sign on, and despite having a 4-2 majority on the Senate Executive Committee, Democrats could not push the bills to the floor for a vote before the full Senate.

President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-New Castle, and Majority Leader Nicole Poore, D-New Castle, opted not to join Majority Whip Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, and Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington, in signing the bills out of committee. Minority Leader Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, and Minority Whip Cathy Cloutier, R-Arden, also did not sign on.

“At this time, we are not planning to, or I’m not planning to, because we do not have the support of the caucus,” Sen. Poore said Friday.

Sen. Poore would not share what specific issues she or other Senate Democrats had. She said she supports the theory of the bills but believes backers and opponents need to sit down and discuss changes before passing any of the proposals.

“I think with any bill, compromise is huge,” she said.

Asked if she expects the proposals to become law in 2019 or 2020, Sen. Poore said no.

Bryan Townsend

Sen. Townsend, the main sponsor of the assault weapons ban, did not mince words when contacted Friday.

“We were told for months that gun bills would get a floor vote this year. Advocates were prepared to ramp up their efforts as the bills headed to the floor and literally just yesterday we were told that there won’t be a floor vote,” he said.

“I have long publicly praised Sen. McBride for having promised a floor vote. I don’t understand what happened.”

Despite the stiff opposition the three proposals faced even in passing the Senate, they had been expected to progress out of committee.

mcbride by .
David McBride

After a nearly identical bill to ban assault weapons was blocked in the Senate Judicial Committee last year, Sen. McBride, who decides what bills go in which committees, told multiple media outlets he planned to place another such proposal in a different committee. By doing so, he could basically guarantee it would get to the floor.

Gov. John Carney, who supports the assault weapon and magazine bans, thanked Sen. McBride in his January State of the State “for pledging to put the assault weapons bill up for a full, open debate,” and called the decision “the right thing to do.”

“I feel like it’s really important for us to keep working and keep having conversations, but we need to make sure that we are holding our legislators accountable, and promises were given and assurances were made,” said Sarah Stowens, leader of the Delaware chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

“Sen. McBride promised he would get these bills to the floor and he went back on that promise, and I think it’s important to keep that in mind as we go forward.”

Ms. Stowens said her group has not heard from the president pro tem since members learned Thursday night the bills were dead.

Attempts to reach Sen. McBride for comment Friday were unsuccessful.

At least 150 spectators crowded into the Senate chamber while more people waited in the halls Wednesday for one of the most heavily anticipated and controversial committee hearings in the state capitol in years.

Opponents outnumbered backers, and while the exact ratio was unclear, it appeared to be at least 3-1.

The hearing lasted two hours and could have gone on for much longer had Sen. McBride not cut short the meeting due to time constraints after 26 of the 75 people on the list spoke. About two-thirds of those 26 speakers opposed the bills.

Nicole Poore

But supporters say simply looking at how many people attend a rally or speak to a committee paints a false picture of public opinion, citing an April poll from Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund and the Delaware chapter of Moms Demand Action. That survey said at least 70 percent of respondents back requiring a permit to purchase, restricting magazines of more than 15 rounds and prohibiting “military-style assault rifles.”

Asked what she thought of those numbers, Sen. Poore expressed skepticism.

“When a poll’s favorable, you run with it, right? You say this is what it is, but you don’t know how the questions are asked. You don’t know what they look like,” she said, noting a majority of people she’s heard from oppose the legislation.

Told Sen. Poore’s doubt about the poll reflecting the wishes of most Delawareans, Sen. Townsend said, “It’s surprising, troubling and disheartening to learn that in the Senate Democratic caucus there is a disbelief of scientific polling methodology.”

Proponents of the bills also point to the November victory by Sen. Laura Sturgeon, D-Woodbrook, over a Republican incumbent in the 4th Senatorial District as evidence voters favor greater restrictions on firearms. Sen. Sturgeon noted Wednesday she made gun control a central issue of her campaign with great success.

So, while the outcome is a big victory for advocates for gun rights, backers of the bills are left wondering what’s next.

Sen. Townsend said he remains hopeful and is open to compromising “as long it doesn’t gut the intent of the bill.”

As for advocates outside the legislature, Ms. Stowens said they’re continuing to discuss future steps. Their support for the bills remains unchanged.

“This is not what Delaware wants,” she said. “Delaware wants a vote. Delaware wants for us to have the conversation. Delaware wants for us to go through the process, not to hide bills in committee.”

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

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