From the Hall: Delaware lawmakers will be busy this week with gun legislation


DOVER — If you care about gun rights or gun control, you might want to pay attention to the Delaware Legislature this week.

Firearms — and Second Amendment rights — will take center stage Wednesday and possibly Thursday as well, as state lawmakers seek to raise the age to buy a long gun, ban bump stocks and give authorities a clearer path to removing guns from individuals with mental illnesses.

Bills for all three are in committee Wednesday and could be voted on by the full chambers Thursday.

The age restriction is likely to be the most controversial of the three, and the House Administration Committee will be meeting in the House chamber rather than the smaller room it typically convenes in.

House Bill 330 would require someone to be at least 21 to purchase a long gun like a rifle. Amendments would exclude shotguns and muzzle-loading rifles, as well as law enforcement and active-duty military members.

Current state law requires individuals to be 21 or older to buy a handgun but allows purchase of a long gun by people at least 18 years of age.

According to the Giffords Law Center, Hawaii and Illinois are the only states with an age limit of 21 for purchase of a long gun.

The vote for that should fall on party lines, with a few legislators here and there crossing the aisle to vote for or against it. Gov. John Carney is expected to sign it if it gets to him.

But Jeff Hague, president of the Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association, said the bill unfairly punishes most gun owners.

“By demonizing inanimate objects, it just feels good but it doesn’t do anything,” he said.

House Substitute 1 for House Bill 302, also set to be heard in the House Administration Committee, would give authorities greater ability to prevent individuals judged to be dangerous from having guns. It is based off an unsuccessful 2013 bill introduced after the deadly school shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.

“I think they both stand real good chances,” House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a Rehoboth Beach Democrat, said.

A substitute for House Bill 285, a measure that is similar to House Bill 302, is also forthcoming.

Those substitute bills have bipartisan support, according to Mr. Hague.

House Bill 300 would classify “a trigger crank, bump-fire device, or any part, combination of parts, component, device, attachment, or accessory that is designed or functions to accelerate the rate of fire of a semiautomatic rifle but not convert the semiautomatic rifle into a machine gun” as a destructive weapon, possession of which is a felony carrying up to five years in jail.

The measure passed the House Thursday by a 25-3 vote, with 11 not voting and two absent. All but two Democrats present voted in favor, while just three Republicans voted for the bill.

It now sits in the Senate Judicial & Community Affairs Committee.

Several people who did not vote for the legislation said they support limiting bump stocks but were hesitant to effectively force people to give up property they paid for without any compensation.

“This is a genuine case of where a bill has one thing that I would support, that is banning a device that really does convert firearms into something we don’t want. What I’m opposed to is taking property by just making it illegal to own,” Rep. Rich Collins, a Millsboro Republican who abstained on the bill, said in a statement.

A future bill may create some sort of buyback program.

Many people are also awaiting the introduction of a bill that would ban “assault-style rifles.” Called for by Gov. Carney after a Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, left 17 people dead, the measure is a work in progress.

Exactly how it will define an assault weapon is unknown, although Rep. Schwartzkopf said he believes the governor’s office is looking at Maryland’s 2013 law banning such firearms. That prohibition has been upheld by the federal courts.

Wednesday’s gun bills could be voted on by the full chambers as soon as Thursday if they are released from committee, which is all but guaranteed.

“The legislation passed today is the starting point of a larger conversation the General Assembly will have on gun safety,” House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, a Bear Democrat, said in a statement Thursday. “Though we may not be able to stop every incident, we must take steps to address and reduce mass gun violence.”

Other business

The General Assembly’s first week back since January was a shorter one than normal, owing to the snowstorm that caused session to be canceled Wednesday. That forced the gun bills and the final meeting of a task force looking at marijuana legalization to be rescheduled to this Wednesday.

Even with the shorter week, the Legislature still saw two of its members announce retirement. Reps. J.J. Johnson, a New Castle Democrat, and Joe Miro, a Pike Creek Valley Republican, both revealed on the House floor they won’t seek reelection, adding to a wave of exits.

Neither announcement was a surprise, although based off of the reaction from other legislators, both representatives will be missed by their colleagues.

Rep. Johnson’s 16th Representative District is almost certain to stay with the Democratic Party, while Rep. Miro’s 22nd Representative District is ripe for the party to flip it and increase its majority in the House.

Eight of the General Assembly’s 62 members are retiring this year, and one or two more could join them. Several incumbents may be defeated come election season, meaning the 150th General Assembly will have a lot of new blood.

From 2012 to 2016, 11 lawmakers voluntarily departed the Legislature. One did so to run for mayor of Wilmington, one resigned after a second arrest for drunken driving, one took a state job and eight retired outright. (One of those eight died a few months before the November 2016 election, although he was not seeking reelection.)

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