Heated Hearing: Senate panel begins work on gun bills

DOVER — A Senate committee on Wednesday heard three bills that would ban “assault weapons,” criminalize magazines capable of holding more than 15 rounds and create a permitting process to buy a firearm.

While the proposals were not released from the Senate Executive Committee, such an outcome is exceedingly likely — the only reason the bills were put in that committee was to ensure they would get to the floor.

The measures have generated a firestorm of controversy since being announced last month, with a strong grassroots movement mobilizing in opposition.

That was demonstrated Wednesday, with 75 people — two or three times what even other controversial bills see — signed up to speak in the Senate Executive Committee. An estimated 150 individuals packed the Senate chamber for the hearing, with most of the attendees there to express their displeasure. And make no mistake, they were displeased.

Senate Bill 68 emulates Maryland’s ban on assault weapons, forbidding the sale, purchase, transfer or possession of about 60 specific gun models, as well as assault firearms and copycat weapons. Firearms that are forbidden under the legislation but already owned would be grandfathered in, although the measure would still place restrictions on where a user could take his or her gun. Violating the bill would be a felony.

While the proposal contains a few exemptions, such as for members of the military or law enforcement and, in certain circumstances, firearms dealers, an amendment introduced Monday would greatly expand those.

Under that proposed change, anyone who has a concealed carry permit, takes a recognized firearms training course or was born before July 1, 1998, and is legally authorized to own a gun would still be able to obtain the firearms banned by the bill.

The main sponsor of the bill, Senate Majority Whip Bryan Townsend, a Newark Democrat, does not support the amendment.

Senate Bill 70 would bar possession of a magazine containing more than 15 rounds, though members of the military or law enforcement “acting within the scope of official business” and concealed carry permitholders would be exempt. The bill would establish a buyback program, offering owners of such magazines $10 per device, and would carry as a penalty a misdemeanor for a first offense and a felony for any subsequent violation.

Senate Bill 82, the qualified purchaser card bill, would require a person first apply to the Department of Safety and Homeland Security before buying a gun.

A variety of offenses or actions would make an individual ineligible to obtain a card from the state, including a felony conviction, an involuntary commitment for a mental condition or a protection from abuse Family Court order, though some could be rescinded.

Spectators during a break in the hearing.

An applicant would also have to complete a firearms training course if he or she has not already done so.

A handgun purchaser card would be valid for 90 days and enable a holder to buy one handgun, while a general firearm permit would last for three years and allow the authorized individual to buy an unlimited number of long guns but no handguns.

Violating the procedures and limitations in the bill would mean a misdemeanor charge for a first offense and a felony for any subsequent incidents.

A nearly identical assault weapons ban failed to get out of a Senate committee last year, while a bill restricting large-capacity magazines never received a floor vote.

With two Democrats basically guaranteed to oppose the assault weapon bill as written, the majority caucus would need a GOP vote to pass the measure in the Senate and send it to the House. Unfortunately for supporters, almost every member of the minority is certain to vote against them.

Minority Whip Cathy Cloutier, who represents the Arden area, is the only Republican who could conceivably back the proposals. She declined to comment as to whether she will support them.
The odds of the other bills passing don’t appear to be much better, even though the magazine and assault weapons bans have Gov. John Carney’s support.

A heated hearing
Wednesday’s committee hearing lasted two hours and could have gone on for much longer had President Pro Tempore David McBride, a New Castle Democrat, not cut short the meeting due to time constraints after just 26 of the 75 people on the list spoke. About two-thirds of the people who did share their views before the committee opposed the bills.

Most of the first 45 minutes of the hearing saw Minority Leader Gerald Hocker, an Ocean View Republican, questioning the sponsors, pointing to numerous facets of the legislation he takes issue with.

Asked by Sen. Hocker why he is pushing the assault weapons ban when no mass shootings have taken place in Delaware and nearly every shooting in the First State involves a handgun, Sen. Townsend urged his colleagues to be proactive.

“Whether you agree or disagree with various aspects of the bill, I don’t think particularly it’s a persuasive argument to that say we should wait until someone is or isn’t killed with regard to this kind of firearm. Debate should be on whether these specific kinds of firearms should or shouldn’t be publicly available,” he said.

Attorney General Kathy Jennings was one of those who spoke in favor of the bills, noting an April poll indicates a majority of Delawareans support greater gun control.

That poll, conducted by from Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund and the Delaware chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said at least 70 percent of respondents back a permit to purchase, restricting magazines of more than 15 rounds and prohibitions on “military-style assault rifles.”

But those who came to Legislative Hall to protest the bills would argue that paints a very inaccurate picture.

Opponents attacked the bills as unconstitutional, unfair and unnecessary, and some went after the lawmakers supporting them.

“You should vote no on these bills,” said Terry Baker. “If not, ask yourself: Is the 30 pieces of silver worth the consequences?”

Others said Democrats are simply trying to appeal to their base and asked why legislators want to take away what many see as a fundamental right.

While the U.S. Constitution contains the famous Second Amendment, Delaware’s constitution has a more specific defense, stating “A person has the right to keep and bear arms for the defense of self, family, home and State, and for hunting and recreational use.”

Several people speaking in the committee Wednesday referenced Nazi Germany and other totalitarian regimes, arguing if these bills pass, more gun control measures will be on the way. And, some claimed, it won’t stop there.

“Gun registration has always been a prelude to gun confiscation and gun confiscation has always been a prelude to, let’s see, just a few minor blips such as the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, the killing fields of Cambodia and more recently the socialist destruction of Venezuela,” Trini Gumerman told the committee. “Hitler, Abdul Hamid, Pol Pot, (Hugo) Chavez, (Nicolas) Maduro, those are big shoes to fill indeed.

“I suppose if I were a politician, I might be a wee bit more comfortable with a disarmed citizenry too. It’s sad that you are nervous, but take my word: You will not disarm us.”

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

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