Guns in Delaware: After several attempts, gun control legislation seems unlikely, for now

DOVER — Several factors would seem to make conditions in Delaware ripe for gun control.

So why does Delaware stand in such sharp contrast to other heavily Democratic East Coast states, including its neighbor Maryland?

An ambitious attempt to place new restrictions on firearms went up in flames earlier this year, sparking outrage on both sides of the issue.

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 broad support for three controversial gun bills in the General Assembly.

According to the poll, at least 70 percent of respondents supported measures to ban magazines capable of holding more than 15 rounds, create a permitting process to obtain a firearm and prohibit dozens of guns classified as “assault weapons.”

The Delaware Democratic Party platform calls for “common sense gun safety measures,” but Democrats, who control the governor’s office and both chambers of the General Assembly, killed the legislation.

That outcome can be traced back to the public response that erupts whenever gun control is on the agenda.

In April, gun control supporters scheduled a news conference to announce a package of three bills, following up on measures approved in 2018. In anticipation of the announcement, opponents planned a counter rally to make clear their displeasure. Individuals, many of them members of the Facebook group Delaware Gun Rights and all of them angered by what they saw as an unconscionable attack on their freedoms, turned out in a big way.

Opponents outnumbered supporters by a ratio of at least 3-1, and they were loud.

The three bills ended up failing due to fears of some Democratic lawmakers voting for the proposals would hurt the party at the polls in 2020.

Despite promising he would 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 bills.

“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 the proposals faced an uphill road just to pass the Senate, the fact they did not even make it out of committee left many Democrats, including some senators, incensed.

Democrats continue to call for more regulations they believe will prevent mass shootings, but even with the recent shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, the odds appear to be against new gun control laws in 2020.

Sen. McBride did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Looking back … and forward
After passing several gun bills in 2018, including ones limiting firearm access for people who should not have weapons and criminalizing bump stocks, lawmakers were hopeful they could make further progress in 2019.

In addition to the permit, magazine and assault weapons measures, bills making “unsafe” storage of a firearm a crime and banning “ghost guns” were expected to see action this past year. The storage bill did ultimately become law but in a weakened form and only after a war of words between Senate and House Democrats.

As part of the fallout from the three bills dying in committee, the ghost gun measure, expected to be filed in May, was never introduced.

A pro-Second Amendment rally at Legislative Hall in April.

Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, continues to support prohibiting assault weapons, large-capacity magazines, 3-D-printed guns and firearms without serial numbers, although his administration has not been hugely involved in working to pass gun control laws behind the scenes.

“We should continue to act. Assault weapons and high-capacity magazines allow mass shooters to outgun members of law enforcement and cause tremendous damage in a very short amount of time,” the governor said in a statement.

“Too many lives have been lost. We’ve seen this happen too many times. These weapons have no place on the streets of our communities.”

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gives Delaware a B grade for its gun laws, ranking it 11 out of the 50 states.

Senate Majority Whip Bryan Townsend, a Newark Democrat who has been one of the legislature’s chief champions of gun control, is unsure whether any tightening of gun laws will come next year. He believes there is a tipping point where lawmakers will be so fed up with shootings they are driven to take action on firearms — especially if such an event happens in Delaware — but does not think that has been reached yet.

The best hope for gun control activists seems to be to campaign on the issue in 2020, hope it makes a difference in the election and then try again in 2021. Firearms were a major factor in a few local races won by Democrats last year.

Much of what happens next year depends on the coming months, such as what activists do and if the federal government takes any steps toward limiting gun access, Sen. Townsend said.

Opponents generally have their heels dug in deeply, meaning anyone trying to put new restrictions on firearms must contend with an angry mob. Even if those opponents are in the minority as polls suggest, Sen. Townsend said they are very good at making their voices heard.

Whenever gun bills are debated, “organizational leaders snap their fingers and a couple hundred appear at a moment’s notice,” he said. “That has a huge impact on the tone and culture around trying to advance gun safety legislation.”

April’s news conference is a perfect example. More than 150 protestors, many carrying signs or wearing pro-gun shirts, were present, overwhelming the group in favor of gun control. Chanting “We will not comply” and “Not one inch,” they drowned out the speakers on occasion.

While gun control is a partisan issue, it’s not strictly a Democratic-Republican split in Delaware or else the state would more closely resemble Maryland its tight firearms laws.

Although gun ownership in Delaware appears to be small — according to a CBS News estimate, 5.2 percent of Delawareans own firearms, compared to 29.1 percent of Americans — those who have guns are certainly passionate about them. Hunting is popular below the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, regardless of political affiliation, and the state constitution contains its own guarantee of the right to bear arms.

Opponents of gun control see the solution not as adding more laws but as enforcing existing ones and preventing weapons from falling into the wrong hand.

“To me, no gun laws would have stopped the situation in Texas,” Senate Minority Leader Gerald Hocker, an Ocean View Republican, said. “Anybody can get guns. You can make your own gun.”

He is supportive of Delaware’s “red flag” law, which allows authorities to take guns from individuals believed to be a threat to themselves or others. The law passed in 2018 with overwhelming support from the General Assembly.

“If we follow it, I think they are, but if they are being ignored, no, they are not” enough protection, Sen. Hocker, a gun dealer, said.

While he is adamantly against stricter gun control, there is one change he wants to see. The state eliminated its existing firearms transaction program in 2011, opting to piggyback on the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System. According to Sen. Hocker, however, the state background check was more thorough and was cut largely to save money.

He hopes to file legislation to bring it back.

Despite gun control laws, big cities like Chicago and Baltimore continue to struggle with shootings, he said, invoking a common argument used by defenders of firearms rights.

Gun control advocated hold a rally in Dover in April.

“If I see a shooter, I’m going to pray for a good guy there with a gun, I can tell you that,” the senator said.

Residents of Sussex County are strong supporters of gun rights, he said, noting no one could get elected to the 20th Senatorial District on a gun control platform.

Indeed, his predecessor, who held the seat from 1996 to 2012, voted against bills that would have tightened gun laws even though he was a Democrat — another instance where party registration doesn’t line up as expected on the issue.

What happens in Washington
The situation at the federal level is uncertain. According to media reports, President Trump has been talking to lawmakers about new gun control laws, even getting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, onboard. However, the president previously spoke in favor of tighter background checks after a February 2018 shooting in Parkland, Florida, but then abandoned that stance.

In February, the U.S. House of Representatives passed two background checks measures, but the Senate has not debated them. In any case, the president has said he would veto the bills.

The three members of the First State’s congressional delegation have called for new laws since the recent shootings in Ohio and Texas. All three belong to the Democratic Party.

Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester in a statement expressed optimism “this moment of inflection will finally spur action” from Republicans, calling it “long past time for us to ban the sale of military style assault weapons, institute universal background checks, and have a broader conversation about the gun culture in this country.”

Delaware’s senior senator sounded a similar note.

“There are common sense gun safety measures that we could consider right now to protect our communities. And in states across the country, there is good work being done to advance common sense, bipartisan gun safety measures,” Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat, said in a statement.

“In the last few days, Ohio’s state legislature has proposed bipartisan gun safety measures in response to the mass shooting in Dayton that claimed the lives of nine Americans. We must keep up this momentum. And those of us in Congress need to take a hard look at these examples being set in our states.

“We must also listen to the overwhelming majority of Americans, including gun owners, who support common sense gun safety measures like banning weapons of war in our communities, closing the gun show and online sales loophole that would prevent known or suspected terrorists from purchasing firearms, and implementing universal background checks on gun sales.

“This can no longer be a partisan issue in our country. This is about coming together and taking necessary steps to protect the American people.”

Sen. Chris Coons has also spoken in favor of gun control, recently tweeting the National Rifle Association “has stood in the way of commonsense gun safety laws for far too long.”

He is a cosponsor of legislation that would require federal authorities to notify a state when someone there tries to illegally buy a gun.

Should Washington end up taking action, gun control advocates would have wind in their sails in their battle for stricter laws.

While only time will tell, it’s possible the gun issue has at last reached an inflection point.

“I do think we’re on the right side of history, I think we’re on the right side of the Constitution,” Sen. Townsend said.

Vow to protect rights
If any new gun control proposals make their way to Legislative Hall next session, the same gun rights advocacy groups that rallied this session vow to return to meet them.

Delaware Gun Rights president Mitch Denham believes that not only are gun control laws ineffective, they make matters worse.

“If you look at violence in cities and states with really intense gun laws, their levels of violence are higher,” he said. “Take a look at Camden and Trenton, New Jersey — those places are dangerous. Maryland has horrible gun laws, and just look at Baltimore. Chicago has the tightest gun laws of any city in the country, how many people died there over the weekend?”

Sympathetic to the victims of recent mass shootings, Mr. Denham says the behavior of certain individuals will always put the public at risk unless they’re addressed.

“The reality is, you can’t legislate away evil people,” he said. “You can’t punish law-abiding citizens because evil people do bad things. They’re going to do those things no matter what.

“You have cars to run people down, you have fertilizer and diesel fuel to make bombs and a million other things to harm people if you want — the Boston bombers used pressure cookers and ball bearings. Gun laws aren’t going to fix this, there are mental health issues that need to be addressed in this county.”

Another advocacy group, The Well Armed Woman, has a northern and southern chapter in the state that plans on returning to Dover next session.

Erin Chronister, a chapter leader of the southern arm, said she got the impression last session that legislators were just hoping advocates would just “get tired and give up.” She says for many in her group, this won’t happen because they have very personal reasons for supporting gun rights.

“Having been a victim, I think it’s different for women,” she said. “Something as simple as going for your morning walk can turn into something really bad. I think everybody deserves the right to say ‘no’ and considering how many people in this world seem to not care about ‘no’ anymore, we need backup and we should be able to have it.

“A lot of the laws are just intended to look good on paper and I don’t see any of that helping when there are some people that just don’t follow the law. For us, who actually obey the laws, this is about having the right to protect ourselves and our children. We’re not just going to give up and go home.”

A look at the ‘bump stock’ ban law, one year later
By Ian Gronau
Delaware State News
While bump stocks were little-known even to many gun owners beforehand, they entered the spotlight after an Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting in Las Vegas.

That incident saw a gunman reportedly use several firearms outfitted with bump stocks to kill 58 people attending a country music concert.
It was the deadliest mass shooting in American history.

State legislators responded to the incident by approving House Bill 300 in June 2018 which made it a crime to possess, sell, buy or otherwise transfer bump stocks and trigger cranks.

A first offense of having a bump stock is a Class B misdemeanor, while any subsequent violation or any attempt to transfer or receive such devices is a Class E felony. The former carries a penalty of up to six months in jail, while a Class E felony could result in a sentence of five years.

The roll-out of the new law included several “buyback” events in which the Delaware Department of Safety & Homeland Security (DSHS) sought to purchase the devices from owners before possessing them became a criminal offense in early 2019.

According to DSHS, 35 bump stocks and a single trigger crank were purchased at the events from residents at a total of $3,515. Additionally, a resident attempted to sell 120 homemade bump stocks to cash in on the program.

“On Nov. 3, 2018, one individual surrendered 120 crudely crafted wooden devices at Delaware State Police Troop 4, presenting them as homemade bump stocks,” said Wendy Hudson, a DSHS spokeswoman. “The individual was advised that he would not be compensated for any homemade devices.

The department promulgated regulations governing the compensation program, effective Oct. 1, 2018, and advertised the program to residents using several media outlets. The department was clear in its communications that it would not compensate residents for any homemade devices.”

The department did take possession of those homemade devices.
It’s unknown how many of the devices may remain at large in the state.
“We would have no way to estimate numbers so I cannot answer that question,” said Ms. Hudson.

According to the state police, there has only been a single arrest made for possession of a bump stock since the law took effect. Dover Police Department arrested a 45-year-old Dover man in February after obtaining information that he was in possession of an AR-15 rifle with a bump stock attachment.
The man also had several outstanding warrants, police said.
He was taken into custody and a search of his residence led police to find the rifle with the attached bump stock. He was charged with possession of a firearm by person prohibited, possession of a “destructive weapon” (bump stock) and local fugitive.

Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, HB 300’s primary sponsor, said she believes the law has made Delaware safer.

“I am proud that Delaware took action on the state level to ban bump stocks,” she said. “House Bill 300 was a bipartisan public safety measure that addressed these extremely dangerous devices, which have no practical use for protection, home defense or hunting. I am pleased that these deadly devices will no longer be bought or sold in Delaware.

“As we tragically know, all it takes is one of these devices to cause incredible harm. We have to lead on issues such as these, and banning devices that only serve the purpose of firing hundreds of rounds per minute is good for public safety and good for Delaware.”

Calling the legislation “pandering,” the president of the Delaware Gun Rights advocacy group said he believes the ban was meaningless.

“It was a silly idea,” said Mitch Denham. “There was one crime committed with a bump stock and you want to ban something based on that? It’s a novelty item. It’s the firearm equivalent of a whoopee cushion. It’s not something people even use.”
Mr. Denham expressed surprise when told how many DSHS had purchased from residents.

“I’ve been involved with firearms since I was 4 years old. I’m 38 now, I’ve never even seen a trigger crank in person,” he said. “I’ve only seen a bump stock once, and I wasn’t even in Delaware. If they got 35 turned in, I’m actually shocked that there were than many even in Delaware.

“It was feel-good legislation that really did nothing and is not going to affect a single ounce of crime in the state. Wilmington is not going to be safer because of it. It made politicians feel good and maybe earned them a few votes, but it basically did nothing. It was pandering.”

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