Dueling demonstrators: Gun rights, gun control groups face off at Legislative Mall

DOVER­­­ – Backers and opponents of gun control held dueling rallies Wednesday to highlight measures that would require individuals to obtain a permit before purchasing a firearm, prohibit dozens of guns deemed “assault weapons” and forbid magazines that can hold more than 15 rounds.

To protest a planned news conference by Democratic officials and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, supporters of gun rights began gathering on Legislative Mall more than two hours before the event was scheduled to start. By the time gun control advocates convened on the east steps of Legislative Hall, a crowd of around 150 people stood nearby, mad and loud.

Chanting “we will not comply” and “not 1 inch,” they drowned out the speakers at the news conference on occasion. Many of the protesters carried signs or wore apparel proclaiming their displeasure with the bills, and they ignored several requests by speakers (including Sen. Dave Lawson, a Marydel Republican and fierce opponent of gun control) to quiet down.

But even though some speakers faltered momentarily, they refused to be silenced.

“Our right to life and our right to liberty, to go to school, the theater, the mall, our places of worship without being gunned down shall not be infringed,” proclaimed Sen. Laura Sturgeon, a Sharpley Democrat.

To supporters, the three bills are common-sense measures that could save lives. Backers are confident the majority of Delawareans are in favor.

One bill would ban the sale, purchase, transfer or possession of about 60 specific guns, as well as assault firearms and copycat weapons, which are defined as semiautomatic guns that meet several criteria.

Firearms that are forbidden under the legislation but already owned would be grandfathered in, although the measure would still place restrictions on where a user could take his or her gun.

Violating the bill would be a Class F felony, which carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison.

Another proposal would bar possession of a magazine containing more than 15 rounds, though members of the military or law enforcement “acting within the scope of official business” and concealed carry permitholders would be exempt. It would also establish a buyback program, offering owners of such magazines $10 per device.

The measure would carry with it a penalty of a Class B misdemeanor (up to six months in prison) for a first offense and a class E felony (no more than five years) for any subsequent offense.

The two bills are similar to ones pushed last year, although neither received a floor vote.

Perhaps the most controversial is the qualified purchaser card measure, which would require a person first apply to the Department of Safety and Homeland Security before buying a gun.

A variety of offenses or actions would make an individual ineligible to obtain a card from the state, such as a felony conviction, an involuntary commitment for a mental condition or a protection from abuse Family Court order, though some could be rescinded.

An applicant would also have to complete a firearms training course if he or she has not already done so.

A handgun purchaser card would be valid for 90 days and enable a holder to buy one handgun, while a general firearm permit would last for three years and allow the authorized individual to buy an unlimited number of long guns but not handguns.

Gov. John Carney supports the assault weapons and large-capacity magazine bans but has questions about the permit measure, according to a spokesman.

Opponents were unrelenting Wednesday, blasting the measures as examples of “communism” and “fascism” that could lead to tyranny. The bills also, some said, violate the U.S. and state constitutions, both of which contain protections for the right to bear arms.

Mitch Denham, founder of the Facebook group Delaware Gun Rights, said more than 400 people were expected to show up to demonstrate their displeasure with the bills.

“The reality is we think less emotionally and more logically, and we’re not concerned with the feelings of it, we’re concerned about the what-ifs,” he said. “What if my house were broken into and I needed to protect my family? What if there was a situation where, say, the country was invaded by a foreign force or, say, our government became tyrannist and wanted to control the people more than it already does? That’s what we’re concerned about.

“This is not for hunting, this is not for target practice, this is protection of our homes and our country and our state. And the reality is, if you look throughout history, you can look at Hitler, you can look at Mao, you can look at Pol Pot, you can look at Stalin, they killed their people right after they killed their guns.”

Delawareans are fed up with gun regulations, said Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, a Georgetown Republican.

“The turnout says we’ve had enough. There are people out here that said this is it, this is the line that cannot be crossed,” he said, standing by the Liberty Bell replica while hundreds of gun rights advocates gathered before heading over to Legislative Hall.

“These bills are an affront to them, to their responsible gun ownership and to the rights they have as Delawareans to keep and bear arms to protect themselves, to protect their families.”

Opponents of the bills said officials should focus on mental health and keeping guns away from people who should not have them rather than push measures that would target even firearm owners who are responsible and have not broken any laws.

Despite the large – and vocal – turnout, Senate Majority Whip Bryan Townsend, a Newark Democrat, remains convinced the bills enjoy majority support in the First State.

“I will concede … opponents of this legislation outnumber supporters of this legislation at rallies like that if they concede that if you go and do scientific polling in the overall community, supporters of this legislation significantly outnumber opponents of the legislation,” he said. “I just think people too often look at the attendance at a rally and assume that reflects the community.”

The pro-gun congregation certainly had the numbers advantage Wednesday, and the 150 or so protesters who attended the news conference were not shy about making their feelings heard.

Members frequently booed speakers – when Megan O’Donnell, a survivor of the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas said she had faced worse than an angry audience, they booed louder – and shouted slogans like “This nation was built on God and guns!” and “Townsend must go!”

Senate Majority Whip Bryan Townsend

Several carried megaphones, and one person blasted a recording of right-wing talk show host Alex Jones declaring “1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms.” Unlike some past rallies, very few, if any, people were openly carrying.

About half a dozen police officers were on hand to keep the peace, and the cops at one point instructed the pro-gun crowd to step back.

Sen. Townsend said he was disappointed opponents chose not to listen to speakers and instead attempted to intimidate gun control advocates.

“I think it’s shameful that they booed high school students to tears. It’s just shameful conduct,” he said. “It’s certainly not part of the deliberative democratic process that’s supposed to be the whole point of why we have our system of government and the whole point of what the amendments to the Constitution are supposed to help protect. So, it’s unfortunate.

“But it is what it is. I think that the bills already represent a lot of thought and research and care into trying to strike balance.”

While the assault weapons ban failed to make it out of committee last year, Democrats picked up another seat in the Senate, and Sen. Townsend is confident the measures all have a strong chance of success. President Pro Tempore David McBride, a New Castle Democrat, has said he will assign gun legislation to the Senate Executive Committee, which figures to receive the bills favorably and send them to the full chamber.

Although some decry them as unconstitutional, the proposals are based off legislation passed in other states and upheld by courts, according to supporters. Seven states have assault weapon bans, while nine prohibit large-capacity magazines. Per the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, five require a person to obtain a license or permit before buying any type of gun.

Delaware lawmakers have made attempts to impose new restrictions around firearms in recent years, successfully expanding background checks, banning bump stocks and prohibiting dangerous individuals from having guns, but these bills, particularly the permit one, would represent a tremendous victory for supporters of gun control and a big step in terms of restrictions.

Regardless, a fight is guaranteed, and observes can expect both sides to mobilize in defense of and opposition to the proposals, which could be heard in committee as early as Wednesday.

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