Last-ditch effort to ban assault weapons fails in Delaware Senate

Republican Sen. Anthony Delcollo addresses the Senate Tuesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — A Senate effort to revive a bill to ban the sale of “assault-style” weapons failed Tuesday when a vote to suspend the rules to bring the legislation to the chamber floor received support from only nine senators, two shy of the needed majority.

Two Democrats voted against the motion, as did every Republican in attendance.

Tuesday’s attempt to suspend the rules was a last-ditch effort by Democrats to force a debate involving the full Senate on Senate Bill 163.

The proposal failed to make it out of committee two weeks ago, prompting supporters to resort to the little-used option of pursuing a suspension of rules for a bill already heard in committee.

They are now out of options, meaning the bill — one of Gov. Joh Carney’s legislative priorities — is dead.

Democratic Sen. Bryan Townsend says he will bring a smiliar assault weapon ban bill back next year. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“It’s very unfortunate that we didn’t have the votes to even have a debate on the issue,” main sponsor Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, told reporters afterward. “This is such a key issue. A strong majority of the public wants to see this, voters wanted to see this. To not even have a debate is extremely unfortunate.”

He said he plans to bring a similar bill back next year.

Joining Republicans in voting against the bill were Democratic Sens. Bruce Ennis, of Smyrna, and Brian Bushweller, who represents the Dover area. Sen. Catherine Cloutier, an Arden Republican, was absent due to pneumonia, while Sen. Gerald Hocker, an Ocean View Republican, also missed the vote, although he was present afterward.

Sen. Ennis said last week his constituents did not support the bill, while Sen. Bushweller said Tuesday he believes the legislation would mainly affect law-abiding gun owners and do little to prevent mass shootings.

In separate statements, both Gov. Carney and Delaware Democratic Party Chairman Erik Raser-Schramm said they were saddened by the outcome.

“Republicans voted as a bloc to prevent a debate, with two Democrats joining them,” Mr. Raser-Schramm said. “At best, those 10 ‘no’ votes were simply out-of-step with the 73 percent of Delawareans who support such a ban. At worst, they represent a disappointing effort to avert a true debate on the bill, depriving Delawareans of the chance to hear — on the record — exactly where their Senators stand on such a formative issue.”

Senate Bill 163 would prohibit the sale, purchase or transfer of 45 specific long guns and 19 handguns, as well as “copycat” weapons that meet certain criteria. Violation would be a Class F felony, while a subsequent offense within 10 years of a prior one would be a Class E felony. The recommended sentence for both is no more than one year of probation, according to Delaware sentencing guidelines.

The bill is based on a 2013 Maryland law.

While it failed by a 3-2 margin to make it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 6, that was not the end of the controversial proposal. Eight days later, President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-New Castle, announced the Senate would attempt to suspend the rules Tuesday, sparking surprise and anger from opponents, who felt supporters were circumventing the committee process.

More than 100 people crowded in the chamber Tuesday for the vote, while others stood in the halls outside. Attendees against the bill weren’t shy about making their feelings heard, with one person in the gallery yelling at Sen. Townsend to be silent after he rose to speak following the failed vote.

Sen. Townsend, who told reporters he was “a little surprised” multiple Democrats voted against bringing the bill to the floor, gave a short speech after the vote, criticizing the opposition to the bill.

Spectators watch during an assault-ban debate in the Senate Chambers at Legislative Hall on Tuesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“Fundamentally, the motivation behind the legislation is simply that we should do everything constitutionally permitted to make our communities safe,” he said. “We could and should have discussed the various safety data. We could and should have discussed what makes these specific firearms different from others.

“We could and should have discussed openly the fact that though we cannot prevent every tragedy or stop every instance of powerful firearms falling into the hands of someone who would use them to do harm, there is far more we can do in the scope of the Constitution proactively, offering legislative solutions before a tragedy strikes, rather than just thoughts and prayers afterward.”

Since unveiling new polling last week, supporters have repeatedly claimed a majority of Delawareans support the bill. According to the survey of 800 adults in Delaware conducted earlier this month by SurveyUSA on behalf of Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, 73 percent of respondents favored a ban on assault weapons.

Opponents, however, have rejected that polling, with several legislators saying their constituents who support the bill are far outnumbered by those who don’t.

During the committee hearing, people raised concerns about the legality of the bill, noting the Delaware Constitution has a stronger protection of gun rights than the Second Amendment.

“It was vetted and there was a vote, and it failed,” Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, said a few hours after the vote Tuesday. “I don’t support the bill. I don’t support circumventing our rules, and if people have questions about peoples’ positions on the bill, they should ask those legislators what their positions are and find them out.”

Republicans and Democrats engaged in a brief war of words after the vote, sniping at each other over procedure. Republicans, who are in the minority in the General Assembly, accurately noted bills that fail in committee almost never reappear and championed the vote as a victory for the committee process and the people of Delaware.

Spectators listen in the dining area at Legislative Hall during an assault-ban debate in the Senate Chambers at Legislative Hall on Tuesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“I lose lots of votes in this building, and I could stand and make a five or 10 minute speech on them and I don’t,” Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, said.

The General Assembly is also considering measures to raise the age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21 and ban magazines that hold more than 17 rounds. Passage for both is uncertain at best.

June 30 is the last regularly scheduled legislative day.

Assault weapon vote

No (10): Bonini, R; Bushweller, D; Delcollo, R; Ennis, D; Lavelle, R; Lawson, R; Lopez, R; Pettyjohn, R; Richardson, R; Simpson, R

Yes (9): Hansen, D; Henry, D; Marshall, D; McBride, D; McDowell, D; Poore, D; Sokola, D; Townsend, D; Walsh, D

Absent (2): Cloutier, R; Hocker, R

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