Bill making ‘unsafe’ gun storage a crime moves forward

DOVER — A House committee on Wednesday released to the full chamber legislation that would make unsafe storage of a firearm a crime.

Currently, state law contains a Class B misdemeanor called unlawfully permitting a minor access to a firearm, applicable 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.

House Bill 63 would expand that offense, turning it in a much broader one based off allowing a minor or an unauthorized person to acquire a loaded gun.

An unauthorized person is defined as someone prohibited from having a gun due to a felony conviction, a mental illness or a court order.

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 is 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.

Like most gun control bills, the measure is controversial. About 35 members of the public showed up for the committee hearing, and the 21 speakers were closely split between supporters and opponents.

Backers said gun owners should approve of the measure, saying the National Rifle Association’s website urges individuals to keep firearms unloaded until they are ready for use and to store guns so others cannot access them

“I believe that the vast, 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,” Rep. Sean Lynn, a Dover Democrat who is the main sponsor, said.

“It’s designed to address situations where loaded firearms are readily available for a child or prohibited person to access the weapon and then they obtain the firearm. This bill does not punish law-abiding gun owners.

“It will not affect the vast majority of responsible gun owners who properly store their weapons and keep them out of reach of those who legally should not have access to them. I should mention that this bill only applies to loaded firearms. We are simply refocusing an existing law.”

But others attacked the measure as unclear and unfair. Rep. Jeff Spiegelman, a Clayton Republican, noted Delaware’s definition of a firearm is very general, meaning that even a slingshot could qualify as a gun under state law.

Others took issue with what “reasonable” precautions are.

If the measure becomes law, a gun owner who believes his or her firearms are safely locked up could still be punished in the event of a burglary, they said.

Should a criminal steal those guns, the lawful owner might have to spend thousands of dollars fighting a criminal charge if law enforcement or prosecutors feel necessary precautions were not taken.

“Where in this does the citizen get protected from being the victim and also ending up a criminal due to the vagueness of the words that are written in this bill?” asked Delaware Gun Rights President Mitch Denham.

Clint Brothers noted the bill may make people less likely to report stolen guns for fear of being prosecuted for unsafe storage, while Charles Anderson questioned if a loaded gun is one with a round in the chamber or in the magazine.

John Commerford, deputy managing director of state and local affairs for the NRA, stated the organization is opposed to the bill, describing storage as a “personal decision” a gun owner should make based off what he or she feels is best to both prevent unauthorized use and to allow for easy access in the event of a home invasion.

But others urged lawmakers to pass the bill, arguing the country needs to do more to fight what one speaker called “the continued epidemic of gun violence unique to the United States.”

Gun owners should be held responsible if improper storage results in a gun being accessed by a child, felon or individual with a mental illness, several people said.

“If you choose to own a gun, that doesn’t give you the right to do whatever you want with it,” said Mara Gorman, a member of the gun safety group Moms Demand Action and one of about a dozen women wearing red in the hearing in solidarity.

The bill might not only prevent school shootings, it could also drive the suicide rate down, proponents claimed.

An identical bill was unsuccessful last year, stalling in a Senate committee after passing in the House. However, the Democratic Party, which already held both chambers before the election, slightly increased its margins in November, seemingly giving the bill a good chance.

Lawmakers approved several gun control measures last year, banning bump stocks and prohibiting individuals judged to be a threat to themselves or others from having firearms, although proposals to restrict “assault weapons,” raise the age to buy a rifle and ban large magazines failed, as did the storage legislation.

Rep. Spiegelman said he may file an amendment to clarify what exactly is meant by describing a gun as loaded.

Regardless of what happens, the legislation will surely continue stirring up strong feelings. Passions are especially intense among gun-control opponents, as evidenced by Carroll Boone, who attacked supporters of the bill as part of an anti-gun crowd shying away from the real problem.

“The problem we’re having here is we’re looking at gun safety, gun safety. It’s your all’s responsibility for not teaching your own,” he said. “You’re afraid, you’re afraid. You’ve let the liberal media scare the death out of you.

“Why don’t you all wake up, because there’s an old saying: When the s— hits the fan, you’re going to wish you had one. Every one of you. And it’s not far from coming.”

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

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