Safe gun storage bill passes House, now goes to Senate

DOVER — The House passed legislation Tuesday that would make the “unsafe” storage of a firearm a criminal offense. Four Democrats joined with the entire House Republican caucus to oppose the bill, which was approved by a 22-19 vote to the ire of the dozens of gun-rights advocates watching in the chamber.

The measure now goes to the Senate.

Currently, state law includes a Class B misdemeanor of unlawfully permitting a minor access to a firearm, applicable 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.

House Bill 63 would expand that offense, turning it in a much broader one based off allowing a minor or someone 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 Class B misdemeanor unless the gun is used to commit a crime or injure someone or is given to another unauthorized person, in which case it becomes a Class A misdemeanor. The sentence for a Class A misdemeanor maxes out at one year in prison, while a Class B offense may include up to six months in jail.

“This bill does not punish the law-abiding gun owner,” said Rep. Sean Lynn, a Dover Democrat who is the main sponsor. “If you do not have a child, a person prohibited or unauthorized person living in or regularly coming to your home, this bill does not affect you or how you store your firearm.

Sean Lynn

“If your firearm is unloaded, this bill does not affect you. If you properly lock up and store your firearm, this bill does not affect you. If someone breaks into your home and steals your firearm, this bill does not affect you.

“This bill is designed to address situations where loaded firearms are readily available for a child or a prohibited person to access the weapon.”

But plenty of people disagree, as evidenced by the man who stood up in the gallery after Rep. Lynn finished speaking and proclaimed the bill is unconstitutional (and was promptly ordered to leave the chamber).

“I find it unfair that the severity of the punishment facing the gun owner is dependent on the acts of a third party over which he or she has no control,” said Rep. Charles Postles, a Milford Republican.

Rep. Jeff Spiegelman, a Clayton Republican, questioned if the bill could lead to fewer people reporting stolen firearms for fear of being accused of a crime themselves, while Rep. Ruth Briggs King protested that the burden of proof will be placed on individuals whose guns are taken in a robbery or burglary.

“The issue is I’m going to have to prove that, if something happens, I, the legal, law-abiding citizen who has done everything I can to prevent that, is then going to have to defend everything I have knowingly done to try and prevent that,” the Georgetown Republican said. “So, I’m going to be placed in a position where I’m suspect even though I have done everything in my own home that I’m capable of.”

Supporters noted the National Rifle Association’s own website instructs individuals to keep firearms unloaded until they are ready for use and to store guns so others cannot access them.

Urging his colleagues to support it, Rep. John Kowalko, a Newark Democrat, described a vote for the bill as the right thing to do.

“If we don’t have the humanity in us to look at these situations that we face every day because of some cold, callous profit margin for gun manufacturers, because of some cold, callous disregard for the health and welfare of innocent people, then I’m ashamed if I don’t speak up,” he said.

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

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