Split over gun control roils Delaware Democrats

DOVER — The demise of three gun bills blocked in committee earlier this month has pitted the Democratic Party against an unusual foe: itself.

The Delaware Democratic Party platform calls for “common sense gun safety measures.” But it was Democrats, who control both chambers of the General Assembly, who killed three firearm-related proposals.

Opposition from union members, a traditional Democratic constituency in Delaware, likely played a part in sinking the bills.

Gun control advocates were outraged when they learned the bills wouldn’t be released from the Senate Executive Committee for debate and a vote on the Senate floor. The bills had sought to prohibit a variety of semi-automatic firearms classified as “assault weapons,” criminalize magazines capable of holding more than 15 rounds, and establish a permitting process to buy a gun.

Two Democrats on the panel decided not to support the bills’ release to the floor despite the Senate’s top lawmaker promising months ago they would receive a vote before the full Senate.

That lawmaker, President Pro Tempore David McBride, justified his decision by saying the bills didn’t have the votes to pass.

“I got a sense that my caucus isn’t interested in doing this. I can tell you that straight up,” the New Castle Democrat explained. “You know, part of my job, I have to read tea leaves around there. And one of the things you do to be successful in this building — you have to learn how to count.”

He estimated just five of the 12 members of the Senate Democratic caucus backed the proposals. Four senators — Harris McDowell of Wilmington, Bryan Townsend of Newark, Dave Sokola of Newark and Laura Sturgeon of Woodbrook — sponsored or cosponsored each of the three measures, while Sen. Elizabeth Lockman of Wilmington signed on as a backer of the permit to purchase proposal. Broadly speaking, those five belong to the Democratic Party’s more liberal wing.

Among those left disappointed by the outcome was Gov. John Carney, who in January publicly thanked Sen. McBride for pledging to have a floor vote.

Union role?
Anti-gun control organizations such as the National Rifle Association and Delaware Gun Rights are generally seen as conservative, and those groups did flex their muscles in opposition to the bills, but some of the resistance also came from individuals usually aligned with Democrats.

Upward of 900 people crowded into a union hall in Newark a few weeks ago to express anger over the legislation, and while the gathering was not an official union event — the state’s major unions were deliberately neutral on the bills, according to Delaware AFL-CIO President James Maravelias — many of the attendees belong to labor organizations.

Mr. Maravelias posted a picture of the meeting on Facebook, urging individuals to pay attention to “the writing on the wall” and tagging Sen. Jack Walsh, a Stanton Democrat with strong ties to labor.

Mr. Maravelias elaborated on his post in an interview last week, saying he thought the meeting was something lawmakers should take note of.

Although he sought to emphasize the issue is not strictly a union one, he believes a majority of members of Delaware labor organizations are not in favor of the bills.

It’s believed that opposition played a role in at least some Senate Democrats pushing for the bills to be kept in committee.

Attempts to reach Sen. Walsh last week were unsuccessful.

Sen. David McBride

Democratic candidates often receive significant campaign contributions from unions, as demonstrated in the fall. A New Jersey-based PAC called Building Stronger Communities, funded by an organization designed to promote the interests of the Laborers International Union of North America, reported spending almost $240,000 to help Democrats in five Senate races.

Two of those Democrats would end up sponsoring the gun control bills.

Mr. Maravelias said he hopes his colleagues in organized labor played a role in squashing the bills. But he also doesn’t want members to lose sight of what he said is more important — issues such as minimum wage and worker protections.

“Somehow that just gets all blurred when it comes to the gun laws,” he said.

Sen. Sturgeon introduced, who introduced the permit to purchase measure, believes opposition from members of organized labor likely influenced some of her fellow Senate Democrats. Meanwhile, Sen. Sokola, the main sponsor of the magazine limit, acknowledged that strong feelings from union members can sometimes sway Democrats one way or the other on an issue.

At any rate, the bills are basically dead for now although some supporters still maintain hope for the future. Sen. Townsend, the Senate majority whip, plans to bring the assault weapons ban back in 2021. Sen. Sturgeon might do the same with the permit measure.

Frustrations
While supporters of gun rights rejoiced over the news the bills would not see a vote in the full Senate, others were incensed.

Sarah Stowens, the leader of the Delaware chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, fired a warning shot at Sen. McBride and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Poore, a fellow New Castle Democrat, saying “we need to make sure that we are holding our legislators accountable.”

The two senators upped the odds they will receive primary challenges, and while Sen. Poore said most of the people she’s heard from have been opposed, backers are confident the majority of Delawareans do support stricter gun control. They’re quick to point to an April poll from Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund and Moms Demand Action that said at least 70 percent of respondents are in favor of requiring a permit to purchase, restricting magazines of more than 15 rounds and prohibiting “military-style assault rifles.”

Sen. Townsend, when asked if Senate leadership put too much weight in the opinion of outside protesters at Legislative Hall, replied that the decision not to send the bills to the floor points to that being the case.

While Sens. McBride and Poore urged the sponsors to sit down and negotiate with opponents, Sen. Townsend said those against the bills had not shared any specific changes that would not gut the intent of the legislation.

Sen. Sokola said he believes the public deserves to see where lawmakers stand on the bills. That’s a sentiment expressed by advocates who said they were counting on a floor vote and planned to ramp up outreach efforts ahead of a debate before the full Senate.

“It’s one thing to talk about a caucus decision and to talk about votes. I think sort of more fundamental is whether there’s a comfort or discomfort with the abandonment of a promise,” Sen. Townsend said.

Although Sen. McBride described the decision to keep the bills in committee as a collective one, some gun control supporters were skeptical.

“Leadership’s position is that the majority of the caucus did not want a floor vote,” Sen. Sturgeon said, noting several colleagues believed they would be angering many constituents no matter how they voted. “Does the caucus follow what they think the leadership wants to hear? Who can say for sure?

“I am not in their heads. I think we had leaders that were on the fence and I know we had caucus members on the fence, and in the end, it is true that there were more caucus members who preferred not to take it to the floor than those who wanted to take it to the floor, so when leadership says that they were following the desires of the majority of the caucus, they are telling the truth. Whether it’s their personal desire as well, I am not inside their heads.”

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

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