Lawmakers to debate major gun bills in coming weeks

DOVER — When lawmakers return to Legislative Hall Tuesday after a two-week break, they’ll be confronting a host of issues. Few, if any, will spark more debate and receive more attention than a handful of gun control proposals.

While everything else takes a backseat to the budget in terms of importance, the gun measures are sure to be in the spotlight plenty of times before the first leg of the 150th General Assembly concludes in two months.

To supporters, the proposals are common-sense ideas that could benefit public safety without unreasonably restricting gun access. Opponents, naturally, see them quite differently, arguing the bills are unconstitutional, unnecessary and unfair, and many feel they even verge on tyranny.

Supporters of gun control rally outside Legislative Hall in April.

The bills, of which there are four, would establish a permitting process before a person can buy a firearm, ban magazines capable of holding more than 15 rounds, prohibit dozens of guns classified as “assault weapons” and create criminal penalties for storing a gun in unsafe fashion.

Details

Senate Bill 68 emulates Maryland’s ban on assault weapons, forbidding the sale, purchase, transfer or possession of about 60 specific gun models, as well as assault firearms and copycat weapons.

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 felony.

Senate Bill 70 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.

The bill would establish a buyback program, offering owners of such magazines $10 per device, and would carry as a penalty a misdemeanor for a first offense and a felony for any subsequent violation.

A nearly identical assault weapons ban failed to get out of a Senate committee last year, while a bill restricting large-capacity magazines never received a floor vote. That magazine ban not only set the limit at 17 rounds but also specifically defined unlawful possession as occurring in a public place, with an exemption for shooting ranges.

Senate Bill 70 is not as forgiving as its predecessor.

Perhaps the most controversial gun measure is Senate Bill 82, the qualified purchaser card bill. Filed Wednesday as a replacement for a similar piece of legislation introduced in April, the proposal 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, including 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 no handguns.

Violating the procedures and limitations in the bill would mean a misdemeanor charge for a first offense and a felony for any subsequent incidents.

One of the changes contained in Senate Bill 82 compared to the version introduced in April is a provision that aims to clarify the bill would not create a gun registry, which is forbidden by state law.

Senate Bills 68 and 70 are specifically geared at preventing mass shootings or at least limiting the damage one could inflict, while Senate Bill 82 is intended more toward stopping urban gun violence by decreasing the number of straw purchases and keeping guns off the streets of Wilmington.

Delaware’s largest city has been called one of the most dangerous small cities in America, and a 2017 USA Today/Associated Press analysis found .34 percent of individuals ages 12 to 17 in the city have been shot, almost double the rate of Chicago.

“I think that’s a really impactful bill for Wilmington and for Dover, and I think that our legislators know that and I think that our city residents know that,” said Sarah Stowens, leader of the Delaware chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

The legislative process has just started on those three bills, although it should heat up when the General Assembly returns Tuesday: At least one is likely to be heard in committee over the next two weeks.

A fourth gun measure has already been approved by each chamber yet remains a long way from final passage.

House Bill 63 would expand the existing offense of unlawfully permitting a minor access to a firearm, turning it into a much broader one based off allowing someone who is younger than 18 or prohibited from having a gun due to a felony conviction, a mental illness or a court order to acquire a loaded firearm.

Properly storing a gun would include keeping it in a locked box, having a trigger lock engaged or leaving it “in a location which a reasonable person would have believed to be secure from access by an unauthorized person.”

A violation would be a misdemeanor.

The current statute applies when an individual under age 18 obtains a loaded gun that was “intentionally or recklessly” stored or left out and uses it to seriously injure someone.

Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, supports the bans on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, as well as the safe storage proposal, but he has questions about the permit measure, according to a spokesman.

Politicking

Three of the proposals were announced together at a rally in April, while the safe storage bill was filed with no fanfare at the end of February. Although it has since been amended, House Bill 63 was initially an exact copy of legislation that passed the House but never got a vote in the Senate in 2018.

It’s the amendment that’s causing problems around what would otherwise seem to the least controversial and most straightforward of the four gun bills — indeed, the main sponsor of the bill find it “vexing” the legislation has yet to become law.

When they passed the measure last month, senators attached an amendment that essentially shifts the burden of proof from the gun owner to the state, requiring a prosecutor to establish that a person failed in several ways to properly store a gun.

Sean Lynn

The main sponsor of the bill, Rep. Sean Lynn, expressed concerns over the amendment’s constitutionality after passage, and while some of those worries have been eased, he remains skeptical of the change.

“The biggest and first problem with it is that it seeks to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” the Dover Democrat said Tuesday.

Under House Bill 63 without the amendment, a person accused of improperly storing a gun could show the firearm was indeed being kept safely, such as in a locked box, or the gun was taken as a result of burglary or robbery. The amendment, Rep. Lynn said, unnecessarily complicates things by making it “incumbent upon the state to prove the absence of a defense to criminal liability, which is not typical in criminal law.”

His options include removing the amendment and sending the measure back to the Senate, passing the bill with the amendment so it goes to the governor or approving a different amendment that hopefully meets approval from both Senate and House Democrats.

“Candidly, I don’t know what I’m going to do yet,” he said.

But Sen. Bryan Townsend, who introduced the change, said it was needed to ensure the votes were there in the Senate. The Newark Democrat is confident the amendment does pass constitutional muster.

Asked whether he thought the amendment was necessary for the bill to pass the Senate, Rep. Lynn had a simple answer: no.

It’s possible petty politics end up delaying or even stopping the Senate gun bills, although supporters remain optimistic that won’t happen.

Bryan Townsend

An inability to get even House Bill 63 through both chambers bodes poorly for Democrats, who will be hard pressed to pick up more than one Republican vote on the other three bills. Failure to pass any gun bills would be embarrassing for Democratic decision-makers, who point to the 2018 election as evidence such policies are broadly backed by Delawareans.

In interviews, Democratic lawmakers avoided direct criticism of their counterparts in the other chamber, although House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, a Democrat from Bear, offered a slight glimpse behind the curtain — and perhaps a veiled message to her Senate colleagues.

“When people have disagreements, I think it’s a natural instinct for human beings to have a little bit of friction, but we try to work together and we do have the majority in both the House and the Senate, the Democrats do, and we always find a path forward,” she said Friday shortly after praising Rep. Lynn for his thoroughness in drafting House Bill 63.

House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a Rehoboth Beach Democrat, shared similar sentiments to some other Democratic lawmakers, saying he hopes legislators would not kill policies they support because of political games.

While Rep. Schwartzkopf did question “how smart it is to piss off the other side that has to vote on your bills” and express skepticism about the amendment, he was quick to note disagreements are not uncommon in Legislative Hall. The two-week break that followed the Senate vote, he said the day after the Senate sent the amended bill back to the House, could give legislators time to cool off and find consensus.

Sen. Townsend declined to predict how and when floor votes might go, saying he is focused on the committee hearings for now.

Fierce opposition

Of course, if the bills do fall short of passage, the vocal crowd of opponents will have much to do with it. Several hundred gun rights advocates showed up for a rally last month on the same day as the unveiling of the Senate bills, and many of those advocates were a consistent presence at Legislative Hall in 2018 when other gun proposals were being discussed.

“I say you have no right to tell me how to live my life in my house. You have no right to tell me how I am to protect my family,” Terry Baker testified at a committee hearing for the safe storage bill last month.

Gun rights advocates rally outside Legislative Hall in April.

In addition to the National Rifle Association and grassroots groups, the Fraternal Order of Police State Lodge opposes the gun measures.

“These are just people trying to appease to a certain group in society with a false hope that it’s going to make a huge impact, and it’s not made a huge impact anywhere in the country,” President Fred Calhoun said.

Lawmakers should instead concentrate on mental health and drug addiction, as well as discouraging criminal activity with strict sentences for violent offenses, he opined.

Opponents are well-organized, but, according to one survey, a minority in the First State. An April poll of 615 Delawareans who voted in 2016 says 78 percent support a permit to purchase, 71 percent back restricting magazines of more than 15 rounds and 70 percent favor prohibitions on “military-style assault rifles.”

The polling was produced by Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund and the Delaware chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

But some question the validity of the poll, arguing the large crowds that regularly descend on Legislative Hall when gun control is being debated are proof such policies are not popular.

To Sen. Dave Lawson, perhaps the fiercest opponent of firearm restrictions among the General Assembly’s 62 members, the bills are the worst kind of government overreach. Should they pass, more assaults on the U.S. Constitution will follow, the Marydel Republican claimed.

“Because we don’t know our history, we’ve gone down that same road and we are taking the exact same path that Nazi Germany did,” he said.

The argument that the Nazi Party’s rise to power in the 1930s was enabled by laws disarming the German population has been disputed by many scholars and historians, although it continues to be occasionally referenced by gun rights advocates.

Instead of resorting to a “toxic” comparison, Sen. Townsend said, opponents of the bills should focus on well-reasoned policy arguments.

“I think there’s an irony in someone on that side bringing up the idea of Nazi Germany when literally, literally, a significant rise in hate crimes across our country, I think driven in large part by the enabling or the comforting of such sentiments by high-ranking elected officials in Sen. Lawson’s party,” he said.

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

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