Guns remain central issue of 2018 legislative session

DOVER — After two weeks off, legislators return to Dover Tuesday to begin a period that will see them in session for eight of the next 11 weeks.

While the General Assembly will grapple with a variety of issues, ranging from marijuana legalization to paid family leave, gun control bills will consume much of the discussion between now and June 30.

Firearms have been the central issue of the 2018 legislative session, spurred by mass shootings in Las Vegas in October and in Parkland, Florida, in February. Lawmakers are pushing to ban so-called bump stocks, prevent 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds from buying rifles, make it illegal to sell “assault-style weapons,” prohibit the sale of magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds, create procedures for taking guns from individuals with severe mental illnesses and prevent anyone on the federal terrorist watchlist from obtaining a gun.

The mental illness proposal passed the House without any votes in opposition; the age and bump stock bans each need to pass only one more chamber but fall more along party lines. The assault weapon restriction, magazine limitation and terrorist watchlist measures have yet to receive their initial committee hearings.

The bump stock bill has been approved by both chambers, but because senators attached an amendment weakening the penalty, it needs to go through the House again. Main sponsor House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, a Bear Democrat, is considering an amendment, which could be an attempt to strip the Senate change entirely or something less drastic.

Any alteration by the House would require another vote by the Senate.

The mental health bill seems likely to find success in the Senate but, as lawmakers are fond of pointing out, nothing is guaranteed in Legislative Hall. A similar 2013 measure passed the House overwhelmingly but then failed in the Senate.

The proposal to increase the age at which a person can buy a rifle was tabled by the Senate a few weeks ago on the last day before the break. The Democratic caucus, which controls the chamber by a mere one-vote margin, appeared divided, and it would not be a surprise if Republicans are able to amend the bill with support from at least one Democrat. Should that happen, the House would then have to revote.

The assault weapon measure was set to be heard in committee Wednesday but has been yanked from the schedule. The bill’s chances are dicey, although Gov. John Carney supports the proposal.

In the realm of non-gun legislation, Rep. Helene Keeley, a Wilmington Democrat, has said she wants the House to vote at some point on her bill to legalize marijuana. The measure is unlikely to become law — this year, at least.

Should budget projections remain solid, lawmakers are likely to approve a bill that would give full-time state employees 12 weeks of paid leave upon the birth of a child.

A stress-free budget would be welcome news for everyone after the General Assembly last year had to go into an “extraordinary” session because of its failure to pass a budget by the morning of July 1. For now, at least, it appears legislators have a good chance to craft a budget with a minimum of fuss. Of course, that can always change.

The Joint Finance and Bond committees will meet the weeks of May 14, 21 and 28.

It remains to be seen whether any other lawmakers will join the nine — 15 percent of the General Assembly — who have already announced retirement.

Reps. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear; Harvey Kenton, R-Milford; Bryon Short, D-Highland Woods; J.J. Johnson, D-New Castle; Joe Miro, R-Pike Creek Valley; and Bobby Outten, R-Harrington; and Senate Majority Leader Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington; Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson, R-Milford; and Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, are all departing come November.

Additionally, Reps. Trey Paradee, D-Cheswold, and Dave Wilson, R-Bridgeville, are running for Senate seats.

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