New Delaware gun control laws: An illegal ‘regulatory scheme’ or ‘reasonable limits’?

The gun lobby promised a legal challenge when the bills were proposed. They object to a ban on assault-style weapons, and age and magazine size limits.

A man holds a sign that reads,

Brent Burdge of Wilmington, Delaware displays his sign in protest when Gov. John Carney signed the six measures into law. (Johnny Perez-Gonzalez/WHYY)

When Delaware Democrats who control the General Assembly and Gov. John Carney announced in June that they would pass a series of gun control bills that month, gun rights advocates promised to mount legal challenges against what they call an unconstitutional “regulatory scheme.”

Barely four months after Carney signed six bills, lawsuits have been filed against three of them.

The latest came this week, when the Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association and allies filed suit in Delaware Chancery Court against the measure that — building on a 1968 federal ban pertaining to handguns to anyone under 21 — also prohibits young people from buying or possessing rifles and most other firearms, with the general exception of shotguns for hunting.

Earlier this fall, the groups and individual hunters filed suit in U.S. District Court in Wilmington over two other measures: one that banned AR-15 rifles and other assault-style weapons, and another that banned high-capacity magazines, limiting clips to 17 rounds. The state must respond to the allegations this month.

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The new suit, filed Tuesday, argues that the law banning anyone under 21 from having almost all firearms was passed “in defiance” of both the U.S. Supreme Court and Delaware Supreme Court, which “have recognized that the fundamental right to self-defense includes the right to keep and bear firearms both inside and outside the home.’’

The law “flouts the fundamental civil rights of Delawareans, particularly those 18 years-old through 20 years-old, by making them criminals — felons — for exercising one of their most exalted rights,” the lawsuit asserts.

The Delaware Constitution goes even further than the U.S. Constitution in enshrining those rights by giving people “the right to keep and bear arms for the defense of self, family, home and state, and for hunting and recreational use,’’ the lawsuit said.

Jeff Hague, president of the sportsmen’s group, said passing the law was “downright despicable” and the legal action seeks “to vindicate those rights and to put an end to this invidious form of politically motivated age discrimination.”

Hague told WHYY News that someone who turned 18 after Carney signed the law and is not yet 21 can own a home and have a family but can’t keep a rifle to protect himself and loved ones from an intruder.

“It interferes with the right of a certain class of persons to own a certain class of firearms,’’ Hague said. “If you’re 18, you can get married. You can buy a house. You can be living on your own. But according to this, you can’t own anything other than a shotgun or muzzleloader” for protection.

A man in a blue shirt smiles at the camera.
Jeff Hague is president of the Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association. (Courtesy of Hague)

Hague and his allies in the gun rights lobby are not challenging the other three bills. Their provisions:

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  • Background checks now include state databases in an attempt to flag applicants with domestic-violence-related convictions.
  • Remove the immunity that gun manufacturers and dealers had from being sued for negligence.
  • Ban devices that convert handguns to fully automatic weapons.

‘Rights afforded by the Second Amendment are not unlimited’

Lawmakers have said the six new laws, some of which had been proposed for years without success, were prompted by two mass shootings in May: the massacre of elementary school children in Uvalde, Texas, and the racist-motivated attack on grocery shoppers in Buffalo, New York.

One measure that didn’t get into the package was a bill that would require handgun buyers to first obtain a permit and pass a firearms training and safety course.

Traci Manza Murphy, executive director of the Delaware Coalition Against Gun Violence, says the package of bills had one overarching goal – preventing such an episode from ever happening in Delaware — but also aims to stem the flow of illegal weapons to the streets of Wilmington, Dover, and other hot spots for violence in the state.

She believes the new measures will “save lives in Delaware” and withstand the legal challenges.

“Like most rights, the rights afforded by the Second Amendment are not unlimited,’’ Murphy said. “Courts have upheld laws again and again that place reasonable limits on who can own firearms.”

“The newest suit aims to dismantle a bill aimed at limiting access to firearms for the youngest adults, whose brains are not fully developed,’’ she said.

A woman poses for the camera wearing an orange T-shirt that reads "end gun violence."
Traci Murphy runs the Delaware Coalition Against Gun Violence. (Courtesy of Murphy)

“The gun lobby is suing because they want to protect gun sales and they want to be able to sell more guns,’’ she said. “We want to protect kids and keep them alive.”

Murphy deflected the arguments espoused by some gun rights advocates that 18-year-olds can go into the military to defend their country, so they should be able to defend their own homes and families with weaponry.

“Let’s remember that if they are going to enlist, they have to go through rigorous, supervised training,’’ Murphy said. “So if we want to sell guns to 18- and 19- and 20-year olds in Delaware, let’s put them through what the military requires.”

“They don’t just hand them a gun. They say, ’Sure, join the military. And we’re going to provide you with a military lifestyle. We’re going to train you. We’re going to educate you. And we’re going to make sure you pass a rigorous background check that makes sure that when we hand you this deadly weapon after rigorous training, you’re qualified to handle it.’”

Yet should some of the measures be overturned by federal or state courts, Murphy said advocates like her “are not going to give up on pursuing reasonable policy solutions to protecting our kids and families. We’ll find a way to redraft it so that it will be upheld.”

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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