Delaware assault weapons ban fails to get past Senate committee

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Bryan Townsend, called for banning the sale, purchase, and transfer of certain assault-style weapons.

Gun supporters filled the Senate chamber of Legislative Hall in Dover Wednesday to oppose a bill banning some assault weapons. (WHYY/Zoe Read)

Gun supporters filled the Senate chamber of Legislative Hall in Dover Wednesday to oppose a bill banning some assault weapons. (WHYY/Zoe Read)

After dozens of gun-rights supporters filled Legislative Hall to show their opposition, legislation aiming to ban certain assault weapons did not garner enough support to advance from a Delaware Senate committee Wednesday.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Bryan Townsend, called for banning the sale, purchase, and transfer of certain assault-style weapons.

Possession of such weapons would also be prohibited — except by those who had them prior to the legislation’s passage. 

“We respect that some are vocally opposed to this legislation, but it’s also true that a majority of the country supports banning the sale of assault weapons, along with roughly half of all gun-owning households. Unfortunately, that majority’s voice went unheard today — regardless of anyone’s attempts to divert responsibility for their votes,” said Democrats Townsend,  state Sens. Margaret Rose Henry, and Robert Marshall — all committee members — in a joint statement.

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Transporting assault-style weapons across state lines would be prohibited, but subject to certain exceptions, according to other provisions of the bill. Licensed firearms dealers and manufacturers would be allowed to sell or transfer assault-style weapons to a licensed dealer in another state as of the date the legislation is signed into law.

“This bill is one incremental step toward making our communities, schools and gathering spaces safer, so parents don’t have to send a child to school each day, drive to worship each week, go to the movie theater or attend outside gatherings wondering if we are at unnecessary risk because our gun laws allow the purchase of such lethal firearms,” Townsend said during the hearing.

But state Sen. Greg Lavelle, a Republican committee member, who did not vote for releasing the bill said later in a statement that he believes Delaware’s Constitution protects the use of these firearms for defense, hunting, and recreation. And the bill doesn’t adequately address how gun owners would prove they legally owned firearms prior to the implementation of the law, he said.

“Legislation of this magnitude is too important to not be fully fleshed out prior to passage,” Lavelle said. “The idea that we would figure it out over the next few months is woefully inadequate.”

Prior to his decision, dozens testified the bill would infringe on rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment and Delaware’s constitution. They also insisted the measure would do nothing to enhance safety in the state.

“Certainly nobody wants to see people dying needlessly. But we still don’t limit car seats, the size of vehicles — and more people die from automobile accidents, yet we’re not focused on the automobile,” said Bernard Limpert of Magnolia. “We need to focus on people (using guns to commit violence), not law-abiding citizens.”

Mitchell Denham of Delaware Gun Rights expressed what gun owners’ weapons mean to them.

“They talk about how they have got them through a bad time in their life where they did some range therapy, and it helped them curb some frustration. They tell me about situations where they’ve protected their family, they’ve protected themselves,” he said. “They tell me about times where they shoot for fun.”

Delaware attorney Francis Pileggi argued the bill wouldn’t hold up in the state’s Supreme Court.

‘What about my right to feel safe in my community?’

Meanwhile, those supporting the measure pointed to mass shootings across the country, arguing they have a right to feel safe from these weapons.

“Please pass this bill for all the students like me scared we’re going to walk into school and never walk out,” said Wyatt Patterson, a Caesar Rodney High School student.

“We hear a lot from people on the other side of the issue talking about how their rights are being stripped when any kind of sensible gun control is suggested,” said Marla Gormin, who spoke on behalf of Delaware Women for Inclusion. “I feel like my rights are being stripped by legislators who won’t vote on gun-control bills.

“What about my right to feel safe in my community? What about my right to send our children to school and not have to be worried someone might walk in with a weapon?”

Townsend and other Democrats said they’re still committed to gun-control measures.

Unless Lavelle changes his mind on releasing the bill, there’s a slim possibility it could be brought to the Senate floor if committee rules were suspended.

“I think this bill deserves a vote on the full Senate floor, whatever that takes. I think it’s a big enough public policy issue there’s enough public interest that whatever it takes to have the bill come to the floor that’s what should be what happens,” Townsend said.

In his statement, Lavelle said Senate Majority Leader David McBride, a Democrat, and his leadership team intentionally chose to place the bill in a committee with Republican members who support gun rights.

“They want to pin its demise on me for political gain in an election year. Sen. McBride could have assigned this bill to any committee — including his own Executive Committee. He did not. He chose this outcome so he and his caucus would not have to face a vote on the floor in the face of significant citizen opposition,” he said.

Gov. John Carney, a Democrat who has touted several gun-control measures in the General Assembly, said he was disappointed the measure did not advance.

“As we’ve seen in mass shootings across our country, these weapons can be used to cause catastrophic damage, and allow those intent on doing harm to outgun members of law enforcement,” he said.

“Over the past several months – since the horrific mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida – students in Delaware and across our country have called on lawmakers to pass reasonable gun-safety restrictions that will make our state and country safer,” Carney said. “I have met with student leaders in Delaware, and could not be more impressed with their leadership on this issue. I hope they continue to speak up. I hope all adults are listening.”

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