Amended safe storage gun bill wins legislative approval

DOVER — The House of Representatives approved legislation Tuesday that creates a new crime of “unsafe” storage of a firearm.

The bill, which passed 23-18, now goes to Gov. John Carney, who plans to sign it.

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 gun owner who has his or her firearm stolen through an unlawful entry would not be guilty of a crime.

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 most notable aspect of the legislation, the first gun bill to reach the governor this year, is the journey it took prior to passage. The House originally approved the legislation in March, but when it appeared before the Senate next month, Democratic senators attached an amendment that in practice weakens the bill.

The change 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.

That alteration sparked the ire of House Democrats, who questioned both the constitutionality and the necessity, speculating the bill could have passed even without the amendment.

The main sponsor was initially unsure as to whether he would try to remove the amendment, but outside forces made his decision easier.

In May, Senate Democratic leadership blocked the release of three gun bills from committee, saying the caucus had no desire to debate the highly controversial subject this year. Because any changes would send the gun storage measure back to the Senate, backers feared stripping the bill of the amendment would cause it to die a slow death in the upper chamber.

“I want to be clear that I disagree with the amendment to the bill,” Rep. Sean Lynn, a Dover Democrat who is the main sponsor, said in a statement. “As a criminal defense lawyer, I believe that trying to ‘prove a negative’ is a very unusual requirement to place on the prosecution. However, I also believe it’s critical to advance the gun safety movement.

“While it is not a perfect bill, this is the best option we have available and it’s important we state clearly that gun owners must be accountable for storing their firearms responsibly. The vast majority of people who own firearms are responsible and take every precaution with their guns.

“This bill is aimed at the person who does not take proper precautions with their firearm and is designed to address situations where loaded firearms are readily available for a child or prohibited person to access the weapon.”

In contrast to the first time the House voted on the bill, the measure was approved with no debate Tuesday. Four Democrats — Reps. Andria Bennett of Dover, Bill Bush of Cheswold, William Carson of Smyrna and Quinn Johnson of Middletown — voted against it, while Republican Rep. Mike Smith of Pike Creek Valley supported it.

Rep. Smith was the only person to fall on a different side of the issue from when the House first discussed it.

The vote also drew just a few gun rights advocates to Legislative Hall, in contrast to previous hearings and debates on gun legislation this year.

Between the House and Senate committees, about 50 people spoke on the bill, with most opposing it. Those against it argued the measure unfairly restricts Delawareans who keep guns for self-defense and violates provisions in both the U.S. and Delaware constitutions guaranteeing the right to bear arms.

“Most of us buy firearms to protect us and our families. Most of us train our youth and our children who fire these weapons in self-defense,” Paul Johnston of Smyrna told the House Judiciary Committee in March.

“I’m a third-generation officer. My family has always been trained because of the dangers of the job that our family has done to protect the people of his country.

“Why should we be punished by this law if our kids don’t have the right to protect themselves because the people that we deal with have the tendency to go after us and our families?”

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