‘We don’t want mass shootings.’ Delaware poised to enact gun control package, including assault-style weapons ban

Delaware State Capitol Building in Dover. (Paul Brady/Bigstock)

Delaware State Capitol Building in Dover. (Paul Brady/Bigstock)

Banning the purchase and possession of AR-15s and other assault-style weapons.

Raising the age to buy or possess almost all firearms and ammunition to 21.

Limiting magazine sizes.

Expanding the scope of background checks before a gun can be purchased.

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That’s what Delaware lawmakers have taken steps to do in the wake of the recent massacres of schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas, and grocery shoppers in Buffalo, New York.

All of those measures have advanced in either the House or Senate this month and are expected to pass both chambers before the General Assembly adjourns on June 30, according to legislative leaders and advocates on both sides of the gun debate.

Those measures and two others awaiting introduction — holding gun makers and dealers liable for gun violence, and banning devices that convert handguns to fully automatic weapons – have the support of leaders in the Democrat-controlled House and Senate and Gov. John Carney, a fellow Democrat.

While Delaware appears to be moving forward with new restrictions on firearms controls, federal lawmakers can’t come to any agreement. One-wide ranging package of reforms that passed the U.S. House on Wednesday does not have enough support in the U.S. Senate.

Traci Murphy, who heads the Delaware Coalition Against Gun Violence, said “support has been building” statewide over several years for measures such as banning assault-style weapons, raising the purchase age to 21 and limiting magazine size.

“Delaware is uniquely positioned to kind of meet this moment of national urgency, because we are still in session and we have the position to take big, bold steps right now, which I think is really critical,’’ Murphy said this week.

Mara Gorman of the Moms Demand Action chapter in Delaware agreed. Her members held a rally outside Legislative Hall on Wednesday, and testified before a House committee considering whether to ban assault-style weapons and raise the age to buy or have firearms.

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“The bottom line is that all of these bills in this historic package, they’re all going to make us safer. They’re all things that Delawareans want.”

Members of Moms Demand Action march toward Legislative Hall on Wednesday after rally to support gun reform measures. (Courtesy of Moms Demand Action)

During an event in late May, Gorman said, “I lost count of how many people came up to me and said, You really got to do something. You really got to change what kind of weapons are available in our state? And really, really fix that problem.’”

That sentiment isn’t universal, however. Vocal opponents such as the Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association and the  23,000-member Facebook group Delaware Gun Rights have mobilized to fight the legislative effort.

The sportsmen’s group posted an update Thursday on the status of each of the four bills that have been introduced.

“How close are we to losing our constitutional rights to keep and bear arms?” the Facebook post said. “Keep calling and emailing your legislators and tell them to oppose these bills!”

Mitch Denham, president of Delaware Gun Rights, said lawmakers should focus more on increasing school safety than taking away the Second Amendment rights.

“It’s a knee-jerk reaction to the events of Uvalde,’’ Denham said. “They want to do something to prevent this from happening in Delaware.

Delaware Gun Rights’ president Mitch Denham (far right in yellow shirt at Legislative Hall rally) says a legal challenge to some measures is guaranteed. (Courtesy of Mitch Denham)

“I get where they’re coming from. I just don’t agree with how they’re going about it. Nobody wants to see this sort of stuff happen. You know, the gun community doesn’t like when this happens either.”

Denham said he’s resigned to the likelihood that the bills will pass, but said they will be challenged in court.

“The makeup of the House and the Senate being what it is in and this being an agenda from the governor and ultimately from the president as well. I think it will go through,’’ Denham said.

“I don’t think they’re considering all the ramifications of it. I don’t think they are considering the legality of it. And I don’t think that they’re considering the amount of money that it’s going to cost the state to litigate this when we take it to court.”

Denham pointed out that the Delaware Constitution is more expansive than the U.S. Constitution on gun rights, giving people “the right to keep and bear arms for the defense of self, family, home and State, and for hunting and recreational use.”

He said the bill raising the age to buy or have most firearms to 21 infringes on the right of an 18-year-old person to defend his home. He said some of the weapons that would be banned are primarily used by hunters.

“The [state] constitution says I have the right to keep and bear them for hunting. So that’s a concern,’’ Denham said.

‘To make sure the next Uvalde’ doesn’t happen in Delaware

The debate played out on the House floor Wednesday, when Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst brought up the assault-style weapons ban for a vote.

While the bill would outlaw future sales to residents, it would allow those who currently have such rifles and pistols to keep them as long as they can prove they bought them before a ban takes effect, if it indeed does pass.

“The intention of this legislation is simple and clear: to make sure that the next Uvalde, the next Buffalo, the next Sandy Hook does not take place in the state of Delaware,’’ Longhurst, a Democrat who represents the Bear area, told fellow lawmakers.

“It’s to make sure that in Delaware it is against the law to obtain the kind of weapon that can inflict the level of carnage and devastation. Highly lethal weapons with their origins in the field of military combat, which have ended up in our schools and our shopping malls.”

Stressing that the bill will not affect the ability of hunters to enjoy their hobby, Longhurst maintained that “the availability of weapons that are designed for military application are not for traditional defense, hunting, or sporting events.”

Republican Ruth Briggs King of the Milford area in Sussex County countered that guns aren’t the real problem.

“I think we’re sometimes looking at the object as being the problem instead of looking at the person,’’ Briggs King said. “Many of these we know are young folks, young folks that have had a history of mental health or other things going on here, because obviously none of us could think that a person in their right mind would do what has happened recently.

“If we’re looking at objects that create violence, why not look at some of the movies and television programs that are out there which encourage and even glorify shooting violence and other things? Why not look at videos and some of those other games where you actually earn points and get to score and move ahead, get extra weapons simply by making kills on the game?’’

Longhurst responded that she respects her colleagues but that “obviously we are not on the same page with this … we’re just going to have a difference of opinion, unfortunately.”

Sussex County GOP lawmaker Bryan Shupe called the bill “a reactionary policy and I’ve seen this happen over and over again. I don’t think this is seriously going to address either the violence in our schools or the violence in our communities” such as Wilmington and Dover.

Longhurst said she supports providing more money to enhance safety in schools, which have long had the option of having an armed police officer on their campus. Yet she emphasized the bill is “proactive” as opposed to reactionary.

“Being proactive is that you make sure that it doesn’t happen. We don’t want those school shootings. We don’t want mass shootings. So why wouldn’t we want to do this?”

The subsequent vote was 22-19 in favor, mostly along party lines in a chamber where Democrats hold a 26-15 advantage. No Republicans voted yes, and four Democrats voted no.

‘Obligation to do everything we can to prevent tragedies’

Here’s the status of the bills that have been introduced:

  • Assault weapons ban. This now heads to the Senate, where it will be subject to a committee hearing, and if it clears that hurdle, a vote.
  • Raising purchase age to 21 for most firearms. The House is scheduled to vote on it next week, and if it passes, it moves to the Senate.
  • Limiting magazine size to 17 rounds. The Senate approved it 13-7 and it’s awaiting action in the House.
  • Background check expansion to include state databases. This measure, designed to flag applicants with domestic-violence related convictions, has cleared a House committee and is awaiting a vote. Should it pass, it would move to the Senate.

Carney announced the series of bills on June 2 — nine days after an 18-year-old man with an assault-style rifle killed 19 elementary school students and two teachers in Uvalde.

“We have an obligation to do everything we can to prevent tragedies like we’ve seen across the country from happening here in Delaware,” the governor said in a written statement. “This is a historic, meaningful package of legislation and I look forward to seeing these bills on my desk this session.”

Sen. President Pro Tem Dave Sokola joined with fellow Democrats, Majority Leader Bryan Townsend and Majority Whip Tizzy Lockman said in a joint statement that “the safety of our children and our communities simply cannot wait for endless debate and fence sitting.”

Stephanie Ingram, president of the Delaware State Education Association which represents teachers and other school employees, agreed. She said the Texas massacre “yet again underscores the need for evidence based, common sense gun safety laws that keep deadly weapons out of the hands of those too immature to purchase and use them responsibly.”

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