DOVER — The House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday that would make it illegal to own or possess bump stocks, devices that accelerate the rate of fire and were allegedly used by a gunman who killed 58 bystanders in Las Vegas in October.
By a 25-3 vote, with 11 not voting and two absent, the chamber sent the bill to the Senate. All but two Democrats present voted in favor, while just three Republicans voted for the measure. There was little floor debate.
House Bill 300 would classify bump stocks and trigger cranks as destructive weapons, possession of which is punishable by up to five years in jail. The bill would also apply to “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.”
An amendment delays the effective date by 120 days to give current owners of bump stocks time to hand them over to law enforcement.
Supporters say prohibiting such devices could prevent a potential massacre, but opponents counter a ban is government overreach.
“So, we’re talking about bump stocks, which sole purpose in life is to come as close as you can to circumvent that existing law of having an automatic weapon,” House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said after the vote.
“So, this device was not intended to really help other people. It was devised and invented to pretty much circumvent and make a semiautomatic weapon as close as you can be to an automatic weapon without actually being an automatic weapon. So, I don’t have that … sympathy.”
Bump stocks exist only to “allow you to kill more people faster,” he said.
Asked what he thought of people who enjoy firing off hundreds of rounds per minute in a shooting range, Rep. Schwartzkopf responded such an activity may be fun but should not be legal.
“I think a lot of things are fun, but they’re not all legal,” he said.
Those against the proposal argue a ban amounts to government seizure of property and could lead to someone who legally bought a bump stock being charged with a felony simply for forgetting to dispose of it — or even being unaware such mechanisms are illegal.
“The point I would like to make is that if this bill had as a first offense a misdemeanor, I think that would be great. A second offense would be what it is or even worse,” House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford, said.
“And if in fact there was an actual buyback situation that occurred during the taking of what we’re talking about, somebody turning in a piece of property that they bought, which was legal at the time they bought it, which now will be illegal and be a felony, we could spend a couple hundred thousand dollars to actually buy back these products from folks that bought that legally at that particular time, I would be voting yes.”
According to authorities, bump stocks were attached to several rifles owned by Stephen Paddock, who perpetrated the Oct. 1 shooting in Las Vegas. The mechanisms enabled him to fire more rounds out of a hotel room into the crowd at a country music festival nearby.
It was the deadliest shooting in American history.
Other states have taken steps to ban bump stocks since, with Massachusetts being the first to do so.
Because of trepidation from some lawmakers about individuals having to give up items they legally bought, a buyback program of some sort may be established through future legislation, Rep. Schwartzkopf said.
“There is a constitutional argument. I think it’s already been addressed in some court cases,” he said.
“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know that there’s a constitutional argument that says you should have a piece of equipment that allows you to just about come a hair’s breadth away making it illegal, completely illegal. We do this all the time in certain situations. People take things and they misuse them and we pass bills to take it away.”
He pointed to bath salts, a man-made drug that can have serious effects, as an example of something previously lawful the General Assembly banned. Legislators made bath salts illegal in 2012 but did not require owners to turn them in to law enforcement.
House Bill 300 is not the only gun control measure. The House passed a bill Thursday upping the penalty for straw purchases — buying or obtaining a gun to give to someone who is not allowed to own a firearm.
Set to be heard in a House committee next week are proposals that would create a clear path for removing firearms from someone with a mental illness and would raise the age to buy a long gun from 18 to 21.
Gov. John Carney is also pushing a ban on selling “assault-style rifles,” although the specifics of that idea have not been defined yet.