Gun control bill opposed: Senate to vote on raising minimum age to buy rifle

A large group gathered during a gun support rally on Legislative Mall on Wednesday. Delaware State Newsw/Marc Clery

DOVER — With more than 100 people packed in the room, a Senate committee voted Wednesday to release to the full chamber a measure that would raise the age at which someone can buy a rifle.

The hearing came just a few hours after more than 150 gun rights advocates gathered on Legislative Mall to oppose what attendees see as unconstitutional overreach. Several people carried signs, and nearly everyone held or wore a miniature American flag.

Each participant also wore a ribbon, intended, according to one organizer, to differentiate members of the assembled group from others in Legislative Hall and prevent the media from unfairly blaming them in case any incidents broke out.

After about 30 minutes of testimony from members of the public, the Senate Judicial and Community Affairs Committee agreed to send the bill to the Senate, which may vote on it today. All three Democrats on the committee voted to pass it out, while both Republicans opposed it.

Current state law allows anyone 18 or older to purchase a rifle. The bill would increase the minimum age to 21, matching the age to buy a handgun. Exemptions would exist for shotguns and muzzle-loading rifles.

The measure passed the House 24-16 last week in a vote that fell mostly on party lines.

Should it be approved by senators, the proposal would then move on to Gov. John Carney, who will sign it.

Ron Lee of Newark came out during a gun support rally on Legislative Mall on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Law enforcement, active members of the military and individuals with concealed carry permits would be exempt, and an individual younger than 21 — or younger than 18, for that matter — could continue to accept a long gun from his or her parents or legal guardians.

Violating the law would carry a penalty of up to two or five years in jail, depending on the exact nature of the offense.

The controversial measure is part of a large push by Democrats to impose tougher restrictions around firearms, which has become the central story of the 149th General Assembly’s second leg.

Opponents of gun control began arriving before 10, mingling around the bell across the mall from the state capitol until 11:30, when they advanced as one to Legislative Hall to lobby lawmakers.

Organized mostly through Facebook, the rally was intended to sway legislators to oppose several gun control bills, including the one heard in committee Wednesday. Many of the participants attended the committee meeting, which was moved from the regular caucus room to the much larger Senate chamber to accommodate the crowd.

“This is wrong. You guys work for us,” Paul Johnston told the committee. “It is time you start listening to us and start looking at what the problem is.”

Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association President Jeff Hague sounded a similar note, calling the proposal “yet another misguided attempt to solve a problem” that will only “infringe and interfere” with constitutional rights.

The measure was introduced earlier this month following a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14. Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old gunman in that incident, reportedly used a firearm he purchased.

In the wake of the shooting, President Donald Trump called for preventing anyone younger than 21 from buying a gun, but he has since backed off that.

To supporters, the bill is worth it if it saves even one life.

Pointing to marches that took place all over the country Saturday to call for gun control, Caesar Rodney High School junior Wyatt Patterson said young Americans are increasingly worried about school shootings.

“I would like to tell you what it’s like being a student in 2018. Yesterday, my school had a surprise fire drill,” she said. “When the alarm went off, no one knew what was happening. When the alarm went off, nobody knew that we were safe.

“Yesterday was not the day. Today was not the day either, but tomorrow might be. That thought, that fear, is what has driven young people into the public debate on this issue.”

Delaware would be the fourth state with an age limit of 21 for purchase of a long gun, joining Hawaii, Illinois and Florida, according to the Giffords Law Center. Florida increased its minimum age to buy a long gun to 21 three weeks ago, although that measure is being challenged in court by the National Rifle Association.

Supporters of Delaware’s proposal say it is different because it offers several exemptions and are confident the measure not only meets constitutional muster but can reduce gun violence.

But there are stark differences of opinion. Several people who spoke Wednesday called the measure a largely symbolic one, noting rifles are rarely used in shootings.

According to the FBI, there were 269 murders in Delaware from 2012 to 2016, but just two involved rifles, while handguns were used in 119 murders.

One speaker said the state needs to a focus on prosecuting crimes and enforcing existing laws rather than creating new provisions. But according to the Department of Justice, claims the state does take gun offenses seriously are completely untrue.

An agency spokesman said there were 581 cases involving an indictment that included a gun charge in 2014, with 87 percent ending in a conviction on or plea to at least one charge and 62 percent seeing the individual in question plead guilty to or be convicted of at least firearm charge.

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