Gun control bill seeks to prevent suicides, Democrats say

DOVER — More than half of the 1,368 gun deaths in Delaware from 1999 to 2015 were suicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In addition, at least 80 percent of suicide attempts involving a gun are successful, far higher than other methods, according to several studies.

It’s partly because of those statistics that Democratic lawmakers say they introduced legislation Tuesday that would institute a process for removing guns from people believed to be a threat to themselves and others.

“Some people make that argument that, ‘Well, they’re going to find some way to harm themselves anyway,’ but we know if we remove the weapons that they’ll probably try a much less lethal means if we don’t intervene with some sort of treatment right away,” main sponsor Rep. David Bentz, D-Christiana, said of suicidal individuals.

“And we also know that people who fail on an attempt to commit suicide, 90 percent of them go on to not actually go through with suicide, so we really think it’s just removing guns from what is a developing dangerous situation until we can get a grip on it and hopefully, somebody, if they do need help, we can them the help and return their property.”

House Bill 222 would create lethal violence protective orders, enabling the Superior Court to direct law enforcement to take any firearms from an individual found by the court to be a threat to themselves or others.

The burden of proof would be placed on the accuser and a hearing would be held within 24 hours if the court believes holding it later would create a risk.

If the recipient of the order is judged to be a danger to themselves or others, law enforcement would remove the individual’s guns. He or she would also be barred from purchasing firearms.

The order would last up to one year but could be renewed.

Delaware has a similar law for domestic abuse, passed in 2015. That bill engendered serious controversy and, as with anything involving gun control, House Bill 222 is likely to face strong opposition.

Rep. Jeff Spiegelman, R-Clayton, said the bill “sounds really good” in theory, but he believes it infringes on the Second Amendment and could be taken advantage of by vengeful exes.

“The real tragedy of a bill like that is that it has the real capacity of creating the very problem it’s trying to fix,” he said. “So, if you have a girlfriend-who-just-wants-to-get-back-at-boyfriend kind of thing, cops show up, they take boyfriend’s guns. This is used as a weapon in divorce cases, for example, and without any real idea of is there actually a credible threat to somebody.”

Rep. Bentz does not see that as a major problem, noting the bill requires the accuser to show “clear and convincing evidence” the individual in question is a threat.

A person judged to be a danger to someone else or themselves can later apply to have the lethal violence protective order removed. If the individual can prove he or she “does not pose a significant danger of causing personal injury to self or others by owning, possessing, controlling, purchasing or receiving a firearm,” the order will be terminated and the guns returned.

Knowingly seeking a false order is a class A misdemeanor, which can bring up to a year in a jail.

Gun control advocates touted the measure shortly after it was introduced.

“Individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis should have better access to world-class treatment, not firearms,” Liane Sorenson, chairwoman of the Delaware Coalition Against Gun Violence Educational Fund and a former state senator, said in a statement. “This reasonable proposal will help families keep guns out of the hands of a loved one in crisis and will save lives. I urge my former colleagues in the Delaware Legislature to pass this responsible, life-saving bill.”

A spokesman for Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, said the governor has not spoken to Rep. Bentz but will “seriously consider any changes that will help us reduce gun violence, while protecting the rights of responsible gun owners across our state.”

Rep. Bentz said he hopes to have the bill pass the House before July 1, when the General Assembly breaks for the year.

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