Delaware judge nixes agency regulations on guns in parks

DOVER — A Delaware judge on Thursday struck down some regulations on carrying guns in state parks and on state forest land, saying they are unconstitutional.

The ruling comes in a lawsuit by the Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association and other gun rights advocates challenging firearms regulations developed by the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, and the state Department of Agriculture.

The two agencies began developing the regulations after the Delaware Supreme Court ruled last year that a ban on non-hunting firearms in state parks and forests was unconstitutional.

Among other things, the regulations prohibit people from openly carrying firearms in certain designated “sensitive” areas of state parks and forests, such as offices and visitor centers, while exempting people with valid concealed carry permits from that prohibition.

Current and retired law enforcement officers also were allowed to carry guns anywhere on park and forest land, but other visitors could carry openly firearms within designated areas only upon written application showing “good cause” related to self-defense or the defense of family.

On Thursday, Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Clark ruled that some of the regulations go too far, violating both the federal and state constitutions.

Clark sided with the plaintiffs in ruling that officials cannot prohibit visitors from carrying guns in camping areas in parks and lodges on forest land. He noted that the Supreme Court specifically held that a person has a constitutional right to have a firearm while camping overnight in a state park.

“The effect of including camp sites within sensitive areas forces state park and forest visitors to give up their right to self-defense in order to camp overnight in those areas,” Clark wrote.

The judge also said regulations that allow a law enforcement official to confront a person carrying a gun and demand identification so that authorities can conduct a background check are unconstitutional as written if the official has no reasonable suspicion that the person is engaged in illegal activity. Demands for someone to produce a concealed carry permit absent reasonable suspicion of illegal activity are similarly unconstitutional, the judge said.

“It is in essence a ‘show me your papers’ provision that facially does not pass state or federal constitutional muster,” Clark wrote.
The judge also ruled that environmental and agriculture officials have no discretion to decide whether an out-of-state visitor with a concealed carry permit can be allowed to carry a concealed weapon on Delaware park or forest land. Clark noted that Delaware’s attorney general has sole authority to issue temporary concealed carry permits and to determine which states receive reciprocity from Delaware regarding such permits.

On the other hand, the judge ruled, park and forest officials do have the authority to issue “day passes” allowing a people to openly carry firearms in areas that would otherwise be off-limits if a person can demonstrate good cause for doing so.

State officials did not immediately respond to email messages seeking comment on the ruling.

Randall Chase writes for the Associated Press

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