Senate approves amended safe gun storage bill

DOVER — The Delaware Senate on Wednesday passed in modified form a bill that would make “unsafe” storage of a firearm a crime. Because senators attached an amendment to it, the measure now goes to the House, which approved it in March.

The proposal passed 13-8, with Minority Whip Cathy Cloutier, R-Arden, and Sen. Anthony Delcollo, R-Marshallton, crossing the aisle to support the bill. Sen. Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna, was the only Democrat to oppose the legislation.

House Bill 63 would expand the existing offense of unlawfully permitting a minor access to a firearm, turning it into a much broader one based off allowing someone who is younger than 18 or prohibited from having a gun due to a felony conviction, a mental illness or a court order to acquire a loaded firearm.

Properly storing a gun would include keeping it in a locked box, having a trigger lock engaged or leaving it “in a location which a reasonable person would have believed to be secure from access by an unauthorized person.”

A violation would be a Class B misdemeanor unless the gun is used to commit a crime or injure someone or is given to another unauthorized person, in which case it becomes a Class A misdemeanor. The sentence for a Class A misdemeanor maxes out at one year in prison, while a Class B offense may include up to six months in jail.

The current statute, a Class B misdemeanor, applies when an individual under age 18 obtains a loaded gun that was “intentionally or recklessly” stored or left out and uses it to seriously injure someone.

The amendment approved Wednesday essentially shifts the burden of proof from the gun owner to the state, requiring a prosecutor to establish that a person failed in several ways to properly store a gun.

It remains to be seen what the House does with the bill. Some supporters in the chamber believe the amendment is unconstitutional and waters down the bill, and they could attempt to remove it and send it back to the Senate. A similar situation occurred last year with legislation banning bump stocks, as the bill passed the two chambers a total of five times before it became law.

In a statement released after the vote Wednesday, the main sponsor questioned the change but did not reveal whether he plans to try to undo it.

“As originally conceived, House Bill 63 is a simple measure that amends an existing 25-year-old law,” said Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover. “Under the current law, a crime is only committed if a minor obtains a loaded firearm that was intentionally or recklessly left within their reach, and they use it to inflict serious physical injury or death. The affirmative defense was part of the original 1994 law, and I’m unaware of any problems that that statute created for gun owners.

“HB 63 simply adds ‘person prohibited’ to the list of unauthorized persons and removes the requirement that the unauthorized person hurts or kills someone with the gun. It maintains the existing affirmative defense statute and adds a method that a gun owner can safely store a firearm – by disabling it with a tamper-resistant trigger lock.

“I have concerns about the constitutionality of the amended version of the bill. I want to further review and discuss it and any legal questions with my colleagues and attorneys before commenting further about our next steps forward.”

Rep. Lynn did not return a text seeking comment.

But Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, who authored the amendment, said the alteration was necessary to get the bill through the Senate.

“If you think through the idea that it’s the burden on the accused to prove these issues, it exists in other places in Delaware Code, but no other state has done it this way and I think for good reason,” he said afterward. “You’re talking about a constitutional right, you’re talking about these situations, the state really should have that burden to prove it.”

Asked what he thought of concerns about the amendment’s constitutionality, Sen. Townsend replied he has not heard those concerns directly and believes House Democrats may be misinterpreting the changes.

There was no floor debate on the measure Wednesday, with senators spending less than 10 minutes on the issue. Instead, the fireworks came beforehand.

At a committee hearing for the bill just a few hours prior to the vote, the Senate chamber was packed, and more than 30 people signed up to speak, with opponents outnumbering backers at least two to one.

Terry Baker, who identified himself as a “patriot” in the affiliation field of a sign-in sheet, argued the bill limits Delawareans trying to ensure the safety of their households.

“I say you have no right to tell me how to live my life in my house. You have no right to tell me how I am to protect my family,” he said.

Supporters countered the proposal should not impact law-abiding gun owners and would likely reduce suicides as well as gun crimes.

But to gun rights advocates, the measure violates both the U.S. and Delaware constitutions, which guarantee the right to bear arms.

“If you want to write some laws, write some laws that restrict you, not us,” Bill Sharp told the Senate Executive Committee.

Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, supports the bill but said several hours before the vote he was not intimately familiar with the amendment, although he noted there was some disagreement over it.

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

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