Democrats to try to suspend rules for ‘assault-style’ weapons ban

DOVER — In a surprising move, the Senate’s top lawmaker announced Thursday he plans to attempt to suspend the rules and force a floor vote on a measure that would ban the sale of “assault-style” weapons.

One day after Gov. John Carney urged the Senate to pass Senate Bill 163, which failed to make it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week by a 3-2 vote, President Pro Tempore David McBride, a New Castle Democrat, endorsed an effort to bring the bill to the floor.

“I believe strongly in the idea that with very few exceptions, the committee process should be objective. That was the case with SB 163, as it has been for every other gun control bill I have assigned,” he announced during Senate proceedings, reading from a prepared statement.

“As all of us know, the committee did not release SB 163. Although I am a supporter of the legislation, I do not begrudge anybody’s right to oppose it.

“But it’s plain to anyone paying attention that there is a great deal of public interest in this legislation, on all sides. It is every senator’s prerogative to support or oppose any bill, but when an issue like this garners such an extraordinary level of interest and passion, every senator should also have the opportunity — if not the responsibility — to have their positions on the record.

“It is therefore my intent for the Senate to consider this legislation on the floor as soon as we return to session Tuesday. It’s my hope that we will have a committee report available at this time, but in any event this is a critical issue and it will be considered Tuesday.”

In order to suspend the rules, 11 of the chamber’s 21 members must acquiesce. Gaining that support will be difficult even though Democrats control the chamber by a one-vote margin. Democrat Sen. Bruce Ennis, who represents the Smyrna area, joined the two Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee in opposing the measure’s release last week and said Thursday he will not vote in favor of bringing the bill to the floor, citing strong opposition from his constituents. That means Democrats must pick up at least one Republican — more if other Democrats join Sen. Ennis in voting not to suspend the rules.

The bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Bryan Townsend, a Newark Democrat, said he is hopeful backers can pick up 11 votes. He had been working to convince colleagues to support suspending the rules.

But Republicans were quick to question the move: Sen. Colin Bonini, who represents the Dover area, asked if the Senate would begin ignoring the committee process for any issue that generates sufficient attention and if any of his bills that failed in committee could be released to the full chamber.

Senators can attempt to suspend the rules and bring a bill to the floor at any time, although the minority has next to no chance of ever seeing a controversial bill of theirs make it to the chamber after stalling in committee.

Sen. Dave Lawson, a Marydel Republican who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the issue has generated a “fervor” even among non-gun owners concerned about government overreach.

“I think it’s a circumvention of the system here,” he said. “That’s the first time in the eight years I’ve ever seen it, and I’ve talked to other colleagues, they’ve never seen it before.”

To him, the plan to try to suspend the rules is Democrats bending, if not outright abandoning, standard protocol to advance an anti-gun agenda.

Both sides are confident the masses are behind them.

A handful of supporters rallied Wednesday and reiterated their intent to attempt to force the bill to the floor, citing newly unveiled polling. Eight hundred adults in Delaware were surveyed on firearms last week by SurveyUSA on behalf of Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, and every one of the five gun control measures mentioned in the poll received support from at least 69 percent of respondents.

“They deserve action now, and unfortunately, last week we saw in the committee meeting that constitutionally dubious arguments are going to prevail currently in stopping very, very common-sense legislation that we know 73 percent of Delawareans support,” Sen. Townsend said at the gathering Wednesday.

“The governor was just asked a question about this and I’ll answer as a senator: Yes, we deserve every measure possible to make sure this legislation … gets a vote.

“These mothers, these children, all Delawareans deserve to know where their leaders stand on an issue, and it shouldn’t come down to a single senator in a committee meeting deciding whether or not such an important matter of public policy has a vote.”

The legislation would prohibit individuals from buying, selling, receiving or transferring 45 specific long guns and 19 handguns, as well as “copycat” weapons that meet certain criteria. Based off a 2013 Maryland law, it is arguably the most controversial of the half-dozen or so gun bills lawmakers have tackled in 2018.

More than 100 people showed up at the committee hearing last week, with most attendees there to oppose the legislation.

Violating the measure would be a Class F felony, and a subsequent offense within 10 years of a prior one would be a Class E felony. The recommended sentence for both is no more than one year of probation, according to Delaware sentencing guidelines.

Under the bill, law enforcement and individuals acting on behalf of the federal government, including members of the military, would be exempt, and a proposed amendment would allow an individual to pass along an assault weapon to a close family member.

Generally, an individual would be prohibited from bringing an assault weapon into the state if the bill is passed. Such firearms would be restricted outside of certain specified locations, such as a gun owner’s home, a shooting range, a gun show or a property the owner grants permission for a gun to be transported to.

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