Delaware imposes temporary limits on guns in parks

DOVER — Three weeks after the Delaware Supreme Court struck down a long-standing regulation prohibiting firearm possession in state parks, the state has issued a temporary order that limits where guns are allowed in those parks.

The new regulations, intended to act as a short-term placeholder while the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and the Department of Agriculture develop permanent policies, ban firearms in designated areas such as park offices, nature centers, restaurants, swimming pools and educational facilities.

Concealed carry, which was previously banned entirely, would be allowed even in the designated areas.

However, anyone carrying a concealed weapon must first show a permit to a park official.

While guns were formerly allowed for hunting on Delaware Forest Service lands, the new regulations enable possession of firearms for any purpose, with the same provisions about concealed carry and designated areas as in state parks.

In practice, the regulations serve as a partial embargo, restricting where gun owners can take their firearms unless they have concealed carry permits.

DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin said Thursday he hopes a draft of the permanent regulations will be released publicly by February, although he acknowledged that may be too soon. The temporary regulations will last 120 days but can be extended another 60 days.

“These are a good foundation for the direction we will be going,” Mr. Garvin said.

The final version might look very similar to the stopgap rules released Wednesday. But the state will have to take public comment before approving anything. That would mean dramatic changes could be necessary based on feedback.

Rep. Jeff Spiegelman, a Clayton Republican who co-chairs the Delaware Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus, took issue with the temporary regulations. He said they’re an example of bureaucrats trying to get around state and federal laws.

Just as Delawareans can carry a concealed weapon anywhere in the state, they should be able to do so in state-owned parks, Rep. Spiegelman said.

“Nobody can tell you when and where something awful will happen to you and your family,” he said. “Show me where I am absolutely safe from somebody intending to do the utmost harm to me and I will not carry there.”

Noting counties, cities and towns are prohibited from restricting firearm possession other than banning open carry in government buildings, Rep. Spiegelman said he sees the rationale behind limiting open carry but believes the new requirements around possessing a hidden gun are unconstitutional.

While the prior regulations allowed DNREC to grant special permission for people to carry a concealed gun in parks, Rep. Spiegelman said the agency had never approved a waiver.

Thomas Shellenberger, who filed a brief with the Supreme Court in support of ending the firearms ban, said the rule about showing a concealed carry permit will prove “more upsetting and cause more concern than necessary.”

Mr. Shellenberger questioned if someone with a concealed firearm would be able to show a license to a “17-year-old hot dog vendor,” and if so, what good it does.

He noted the regulations refer solely to Delawareans carrying concealed weapons, even though Delaware recognizes permits from 20 other states.

The temporary regulations were released in response to a 3-2 court decision that ruled a complete ban on firearms is unconstitutional.

The decision, handed down on Dec. 7, reversed a Superior Court ruling.

“We are asked whether unelected officials from the state’s parks and forest departments, whose power is expressly limited, can ban (except for a narrow exception for hunting) the possession of guns in state parks and forests in contravention of Delawareans’ rights under the state’s constitution. Clearly they cannot,” Justice Karen Valihura wrote in a majority opinion.

“They lack such authority because they may not pass unconstitutional laws, and the regulations completely eviscerate a core right to keep and bear arms for defense of self and family outside the home — a right this court has already recognized.”

The lawsuit was filed by the Bridgeville Rifle & Pistol Club against DNREC and the Department of Agriculture. It took more than a year to make its way through the court system, culminating in the Supreme Court’s order.

Francis G.X. Pileggi, one of the lawyers who represented the appellants, said he has not had time to closely study the regulations or speak with his clients but plans to “review them closely and analyze whether or not they comply with the Supreme Court’s decision.”

The ban of firearms in state parks had been in place since 1962, with minor changes over the years. Possession of guns for reasons other than hunting had been prohibited in forests since 2003.

The two Supreme Court justices who dissented argued it is within the interest of public safety to limit firearms.

“When people come together in parks and forests for games and recreation, emotions can run high. When folks camp, they sometimes drink, including at events within the parks like beer and wine festivals,” they wrote.

“When folks drink and carouse, they sometimes get jealous and angry. When folks play or attend sporting events, spirits run high and sometimes out of control. When folks get emotional around guns, things can get dangerous fast. When folks camp, there are no gun lockers, and they are near other visitors.”

DNREC and the Department of Agriculture opted not to appeal the Supreme Court ruling, believing there was no basis, Mr. Garvin said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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