When Delaware lawmakers finally bucked the gun lobby nearly a year ago by banning the sale and possession of AR-15 rifles and other assault-style weapons, they allowed firearms owners to keep any weapons they already had.
But there’s a caveat — and it involves showing up at a state police facility with the weapons, and providing a thumbprint to the cops.
That’s because anyone who has an assault weapon must be able to prove they obtained it legitimately before June 30, 2022. Violations of the ban are a felony.
For owners to be able to present what the law calls ”conclusive evidence’’ the assault-style weapon was obtained prior to the ban, they can apply for a “voluntary certificate of possession” from the state for each firearm.
The certificate isn’t mandatory but allows an owner to avoid prosecution or, if they are charged criminally with having one or more of the now-banned firearms, have a ready-made “affirmative defense” that would exonerate them, according to the law.
People must apply for the certificates by June 30. So with the deadline approaching, the state is offering owners three chances to get one in the coming weeks.
The certificates will be offered from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the following dates at these locations:
- May 27 at Troop 2, 100 Lagrange Avenue, Newark.
- June 3 at Troop 7, 19444 Mulberry Knoll Road, Lewes.
- June 10 at the State Bureau of Identification, 600 Bay Road, Suite 1B, Dover.
But it won’t be as simple as sending in your receipt to authorities.
Instead, owners have to take the following steps:
- Bring the weapon or weapons, which must be unloaded and secured in their vehicle.
- Present a valid Delaware driver’s license or identification card, or a U.S. passport.
- Bring a dated bill of sale, purchase receipt, or record of transfer from a licensed firearms dealer that shows the deal was completed by June 30, 2022. If a weapon was inherited, they must bring a will or other documentation substantiating that claim.
- Be unarmed when they go into the police facility.
Even though the law doesn’t allow the state to “retain copies of the certificate or other identifying information” about people who apply for one, to get a certificate applicants must affix their thumbprint to the documents.
Arshon Howard of the Department of Safety and Homeland Security said state troopers will be prepared for a large number of applicants, but stressed that strict rules must be followed.
“I have confidence that the Delaware State Police will handle everything,’’ Howard said. “But I just want to reiterate for residents to leave all your weapons in your vehicle. They must be unloaded and once you do enter the building, you must be unarmed as well.”
Traci Murphy of the Delaware Coalition Against Gun Violence said legislators deserve credit for creating a law that “really advocated for people keeping the weapons they already own.’’
Murphy said research has shown that the vast majority of mass casualty events with assault-style rifles are carried out by people who recently bought their weapons. She cited, for example, the May 2022 massacre of 19 elementary school students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas — the event that prompted Delaware to pass a ban after years of failed attempts.
“These are often short-time decisions,’’ she said. “People buy weapons and use them in a very short manner of time.”
Murphy said the compromise by lawmakers gives owners a relatively easy way to take their guns to shooting ranges or competitions and be able to prove it’s legally owned.
“I don’t think it’s too much to ask for people to have to have a proof of sale,’’ she said, “to prove that they bought these weapons when it was legal to do so in Delaware.”
‘It’s up to individuals as to whether or not they comply’
The new law was hotly contested by Second Amendment advocates, who have claimed in a lawsuit that it’s an infringement on the constitutional “right to keep and bear arms.”
But a recent ruling by a U.S. District Court judge in Wilmington rejected the bid by the gun owners for a temporary injunction to put the new law on hold until the case is resolved.
A trial originally scheduled for this fall has been postponed while the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals weighs an appeal filed by the Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association and other plaintiffs in the case.
Jeff Hague, who heads the sportsmen’s group, says that beyond his group’s lawsuit seeking to strike down the law, he also has concerns about how the state is issuing the certificates.
Though he acknowledged it’s likely a “foolproof’’ way to avoid arrest if the police stop someone with assault-style weapons or find them in a home or business during a search, Hague wondered why the state waited until just five weeks before certificates must be sought to hold the events.
“They had one year to do this. So essentially, 48 weeks have gone by before they’re doing anything about this,” Hague said.
Asked about holding the events so close to the deadline, Howard said protocols and procedures had to be put in place. But he added that after the initial three events, more will be scheduled before the June 30 application deadline.
“We continue to work to accommodate those who cannot participate’’ in the first three events, he said.
Hague also noted that while the law doesn’t require the applicant to apply in person, there’s that fingerprint requirement.
“They don’t feel people can do that on their own,’’ Hague said. ”And they’re saying that they have to do it at the troop.’’
Hague said there are likely thousands of such weapons already in Delaware, but said he’s not offering members any advice about whether they should get certificates.
He also pointed out that having a certificate isn’t the only way to avoid arrest or beat a prosecution. Nothing in the law prevents someone from just keeping the receipt at home and presenting it to the police or prosecutors, he said.
“It’s up to the person individually to make a decision as to what they want to do,’’ Hague said. “We believe that the laws are unconstitutional. This is overreaching. It’s not going to stand court scrutiny eventually, but that’s over a year down the road. So it’s up to individuals as to whether or not they comply.”
Another concern Hague has is that some owners bought or were given the now-banned firearms more than a decade or so ago and don’t have receipts.
“The key is a receipt,’’ he said. “Do you have a receipt for something you purchased 30 years ago.”
Gun-control proponent Murphy said she’s looking forward to learning how many people take advantage of the opportunity to seek and obtain certificates.
“This is a brand new policy for us,’’ Murphy said. “I’m very eager to find out.”