Gun control bills advance in state House with wide support

NRA lobbyist Rick Armitage speaks in favor of HB302 during the Administration Committee hearing on gun control in the House chambers at Leghall on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — A House committee voted Wednesday to release to the full chamber bills raising the age to buy a long gun and creating a clearly defined procedure for removing guns from individuals who have mental illnesses or are judged to be dangerous.

Both bills were approved unanimously by the five-member House Administration Committee. The hearing was less heated than expected, with the vast majority of speakers calling for lawmakers to back the measures.

The hearing, held on the one-month anniversary of the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, took place a few hours after students across the country walked out of school to call for change in gun laws. Among those who spoke before lawmakers were a handful of middle- and high-school students, some of whom met with Gov. John Carney later.

“I think now we have a moral responsibility to ensure that these 17 victims did not die in vain,” Vyshnavi Kosigi of Newark Charter School said, referencing those killed in the Parkland shooting.

House Substitute 1 for House Bill 302 would lay out steps for law enforcement to take and keep guns from certain people. Under the bill, anyone who is mentally ill or deemed dangerous to themselves or others by law enforcement and the courts would be unable to buy or keep firearms.

Charlotte King with the League of Women Voters speaks in favor of HB302 during the Administration Committee hearing on gun control in the House chambers at Leghall on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

The bill is based on legislation filed in 2013. Introduced after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the measure passed the House overwhelmingly but failed in the Senate.

House Substitute 1 for House Bill 330 would raise the age to buy a long gun, such as a rifle, from 18 to 21. Current state law requires individuals to be 21 or older to buy a handgun but sets the minimum age for purchase of a long gun to 18.

The mental health bill specifically prohibits people who have been committed to an institution for a mental disorder or found not guilty by reason of insanity, guilty but mentally ill or mentally incompetent from owning firearms unless they can prove they are no longer suffering from a disorder.

Mental health professionals would have discretion to reveal confidential discussions to law enforcement if they believe a patient poses a threat.

If a law enforcement agency receives a report of someone who owns firearms and is dangerous, it would be obligated to investigate and, if it finds the concerns to be accurate, file the report with the Department of Justice and seek from the Justice of the Peace Court a mandate for that person to give up their guns and ammunition.

The individual in question would not be notified ahead of time or given a court hearing.

The order would be good for 60 days, unless the Department of Justice chooses to seek an indefinite extension with the Superior Court. A Superior Court order would require a hearing if the accused requests one.

President of the Delaware Sportsman Association Jeff Hague waits his turn to speak during the Administration Committee hearing on gun control in the House chambers at Leghall on wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Both courts can mandate a person cannot live with someone who has guns for the duration of the order.

While the Justice of the Peace Court order would require the person to surrender their guns to law enforcement, the Superior Court mandate would allow him or her to give them to a designee, as long as that designee does not live with the individual in question.

Decisions by the Superior Court could be appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court.

The measure has drawn the ire of the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware, which objects to provisions it says violate due process.

“In some emergency circumstances, the government may remove people from their residence without a full hearing in advance, so long as a hearing is supplied later,” the organization wrote in a letter to lawmakers. “But an order effectively evicting a person from their home for two months or longer without an opportunity to be heard is well beyond the bounds of what the Constitution allows.”

The nonprofit also said the proposal could actually lead to bloodshed when police come to remove guns from those with mental illnesses.

No representative of the ACLU testified Wednesday.

Main sponsor Rep. Dave Bentz, a Christiana Democrat, said he is confident the bill does not violate the Constitution. He noted he may introduce an amendment to shorten how long the initial order lasts.

Asked about the provision that could force someone out of their home, Rep. Bentz said it is necessary to prevent a “massive loophole” that would arise if the individual in question lives with someone who owns guns.

The substitute is not opposed by the National Rifle Association, which worked with Rep. Bentz to make changes to a version he filed in January.

Speakers said they hope stricter laws surrounding guns and mental illness could prevent a massacre like the shooting at Stoneman Douglas last month.

“It’s been too long,” Anthony Jackson said. “We’ve seen too many children die, we’ve seen this happen too many times and we play Monday morning quarterback and we go back over it and go through the same arguments of mental health is the problem. No, the problem is the guns.”

The shooter in Parkland reportedly had autism, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and made numerous threats.

The bill is expected to be voted on by the House today.

While all 18 people who spoke on the mental health bill did so in support, the age limit legislation received a mixed reaction. Three spoke against it, with 11 urging legislators to pass it.

The measure would make Delaware the third state with an age limit of 21 for purchase of a long gun, according to the Giffords Law Center. Exemptions exist for individuals in the military or law enforcement, those with a concealed deadly weapon permit and cases where a parent approves the transfer of a gun.

“What I’m trying to capture with this bill is somebody who, like I said earlier, just happens to wake up on the wrong side of the moon and is really angry with the world and decides they want to go buy a gun at the age of 19 and go kill people, and this will stop that, because they won’t be able to purchase that gun,” said House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a Rehoboth Beach Democrat.

He noted the shooter in Parkland was 19 and used a gun he legally purchased.

Florida raised the age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21 this month, although the National Rifle Association has filed suit against the law.

Rep. Schwartzkopf said he believes the exemptions in his bill ensure it is legal.

But a few people argued the legislation would have no effect in preventing violence.

“HB 330 and a companion gun control bill provides only superficial expressions of morality, largely to make people feel legislators care deeply about the problem,” John Nichols said. “Make no mistake, opponents of the gun control bills identify and care deeply about real solutions, not feel-good measures that accomplish nothing.”

Legislation that would ban the sale of “assault-style rifles” is expected to be filed at some point with the backing of Gov. Carney.

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