Delaware lawmakers to convene at gun forum ahead of 2020 session

Hundreds of high school and middle school students gather in front of the White House in support of gun control in the wake of the Florida shooting, on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

DOVER — Few, if any, issues generated more debate and demanded as much attention in the Delaware General Assembly last year as guns. Three controversial proposals to criminalize a variety of semi-automatic firearms classified as “assault weapons,” ban magazines capable of holding more than 15 rounds and establish a permitting process to buy a gun sparked an uproar, driving hundreds to Legislative Hall and prompting passionate arguments for and against.

But ultimately, despite the Democratic Party’s control of both chambers, those bills failed to even pass the first test.

Though he had pledged to assign gun bills to a friendly committee, Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, a New Castle Democrat, ended up playing a major role in the measures dying. Along with Majority Leader Nicole Poore, a New Castle Democrat, he joined the two Republicans on the Senate Executive Committee to block the proposals from making it to the Senate floor.

“I got a sense that my caucus isn’t interested in doing this. I can tell you that straight up,” he explained in May. “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.”

Influential in the decision to kill the legislation was opposition from union members, a core Democratic constituency.

While passage into law would still have been a longshot even if the measures had been released to the full Senate, the outcome was a stunning defeat for gun control advocates, who viewed Sen. McBride’s decision as a betrayal.

M. Marker stands with his rifle as Daniyel Baron with the Delaware 3% United Patriots speaks during a Rally for Gun Rights at Legislative Hall on April 13, 2018. (Delaware State News File/Marc Clery )

But despite the prospect of substantive gun control passing the legislature in 2020 appearing slim (for now) and despite many lawmakers preferring the issue remains to the side, either because they want to stay away from a subject that is a political football or simply because they oppose the concept, it remains a hot-button one, guaranteed to engender strong feelings from just about everyone.

The three gun bills remain in committee, and other measures could follow, such as one limiting immunity for gun sellers who deal to individuals prohibited from having a firearm.

As Sen. Stephanie Hansen puts it, the issue isn’t going away, and with so much passion and (mis)information out there, lawmakers need to make sure they are educated.

To that end, the Middletown Democrat has organized an all-day forum on gun violence today, intended as a chance for decision-makers to separate facts from fictions in regard to firearms. Because of limited seating, it’s closed to the public.

The forum will feature five panel discussions: Assault-Style Weapons and Magazine Panel, Training and Licenses Panel, Home Sales & Storage of Firearms Panel, Background Checks – People & Guns Panel and Delaware Gun Crimes and Statistics Panel. Attendees will hear from police, prosecutors, doctors, criminal justice experts, firearm dealers, gun rights officials and others.

Though some Second Amendment advocates may bristle at the forum’s explicit focus on gun violence, Sen. Hansen was insistent the event is nonpartisan.

“This is not a forum where we are advancing one side or another,” she said.

Looking back and forward

Sen. Hansen said she has not made up her mind on the three gun bills and is unsure if enough members of the Senate Democratic caucus have shifted to give the measures a good chance to pass the chamber.

Sen. Bryan Townsend, a Newark Democrat and one of the General Assembly’s biggest advocates for gun control, thinks the forum can be a helpful reset, given the anger on both sides over the bills and their fate last spring.

“The sudden and unexpected paralysis on the gun bills in 2019 suggest there should be a clearing of the air the forum can provide,” he said.

He’s hopeful there’s still room for compromise that can allow the state to implement safeguards he is confident are sorely needed and supported by the public.

“I think that sadly it takes time for everyone to become aware not only of the rampant tragedy in the community, but also of the reality that public policy measures can make us safer, that they are constitutional, and so I think it’s on us as advocates to press firmly but politely,” he said.

Charles Coverdale with his sign at a Rally for Gun Rights at Legislative Hall on April 13, 2018. (Delaware State News File/Marc Clery)

Nationally, gun control polls well with Democrats and independents, and at the state level, an April survey from Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund and Moms Demand Action reported at least 70 percent of respondents supported each of the three gun bills.

But to others, that data is evidence simply that the polling is busted.

Opponents are quick to point to the many people (frequently hundreds) who flock to Legislative Hall to protest whenever gun control is on the agenda. Sen. Dave Lawson, a Marydel Republican who is perhaps the staunchest backer of the right to bear arms, said feedback on the bills from constituents in his rural district has been at least 80 percent negative.

Jeff Hague, the president of the Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association, the local affiliate of the National Rifle Association, believes nothing has changed to in terms of the support enjoyed by the three gun bills in the Senate.

Like most opponents, Mr. Hague sees the legislation as unconstitutional attacks on liberty and expects it would make no difference in reducing crime or preventing mass shootings. Instead of focusing on an object, gun control supporters should consider that most shootings in Delaware are committed by individuals who are prohibited from having firearms anyway, he said.

“I hope the sponsors see that and actually try to do something to get to the source of the problem, which is people,” he said.

Mr. Hague believes Sen. Hansen’s goal of creating an expanded dialogue and sharing facts is a good one, and he’s hopeful both parties can work together on several bills set to be introduced by Sen. Lawson in the coming weeks.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas student David Hogg speaks during March for Our Lives to demand stricter gun control laws on Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Washington, D.C. (Mike Stocker/Sun Sentinel/TNS)

One measure would expand the state’s 2018 “red flag” law, which enables authorities to seize firearms from individuals deemed to be a danger to themselves or others, while another aims to better coordinate work and data between different law enforcement and social service agencies.

The former would mandate school districts to create a policy to identify and track students who are believed to be dangerous and ensure they receive evaluation, treatment or law enforcement action. It would also provide immunity for school employees who report students for assistance, such as for mental health concerns.

“My hope is to give the teachers some surety that they’re not going to be prosecuted, persecuted when they’re trying to protect children, do the best for those children,” he said.

The second proposal is based off recommendations from a 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on reducing violence in Wilmington. Both were crafted with assistance from the DSSA, and Sen. Lawson is still seeking feedback from the public on the ideas.

Senate Minority Leader Gerald Hocker, an Ocean View Republican, is also working on legislation to study reestablishing the firearm background check system abolished in 2011, when the state signed onto the federal process. The draft bill is bipartisan and could help better enforce Delaware’s red flag laws, according to Sen. Hocker’s newsletter.

To proponents of gun rights, these are the types of policies lawmakers should be focusing on. Such individuals are often quick to note criminals don’t follow laws, arguing adding more restrictions would just infringe upon everyday Delawareans. They also frequently cite the U.S. and state constitutions, protesting the restrictions would violate the rights explicitly spelled out in both.

But those on the other side reject those arguments, painting the proposals as ones that can in the long term keep guns out of the wrong hands. After all, it’s hard to measure exactly how many mass shootings are prevented by strict safeguards.

As for Sen. Townsend, he has no doubt gun control is both supported by the public and is constitutional. Legislators who doubt the legality of the proposals can review several federal court cases, he said, particularly circuit court rulings upholding assault weapons bans.

“If legislators take time to read through that and think through that, I think we have a far greater chance of enhancing public safety than if we just take a quick visual poll of a rally, and even worse, who’s shouting down one side of a debate,” he said.

As for the popularity of the legislation, the spring poll and the results of the 2018 midterm elections are evidence enough for him. Democrats saw success nationally in 2018, and at the local level, the party attributes at least part of Laura Sturgeon’s victory over a powerful Republican senator in northern Delaware to frustrations over inactivity on firearm issues.

Sen. Townsend is also convinced if a mass shooting ever happens in the First State, many of the arguments against gun control would suddenly melt away and plenty of the “no” votes would flip.

In his eyes, the issue is clear-cut and past the breaking point: “I just think there’s a wrong side and right side of history here.”

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