Gun rights advocates challenge Delaware’s new ban on assault-style weapons in federal court

The lawsuit argues that AR-15 rifles and similar weapons have long been in “common use” and that gives them protection under the U.S. and Delaware constitutions.

File photo: Brent Burdge of Wilmington, Delaware displays his sign in protest to the passing of legislation outside of Gov. John Carney's office. (Johnny Perez-Gonzalez/WHYY)

File photo: Brent Burdge of Wilmington, Delaware displays his sign in protest to the passing of legislation outside of Gov. John Carney's office. (Johnny Perez-Gonzalez/WHYY)

When Delaware lawmakers and Gov. John Carney were fast-tracking six gun-control bills last month, opponents of those restrictions promised to mount a challenge in court, especially over a ban on assault-style weapons.

They sure didn’t wait long, filing a 57-page lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Wilmington just three weeks after the governor signed the measures.

The first target of alleged unconstitutionality is the ban on AR-15 rifles and dozens of other similar semiautomatic weapons. But the Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association says its club for hunters and shooting enthusiasts and other plaintiffs will also sue over a limit on magazine capacity and a bill banning the sale of most rifles to anyone under 21.

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The essence of the lawsuit filed this week is that the U.S. and Delaware constitutions forbid such a prohibition against the right to have “commonly possessed firearms” such as the AR-15 and other weapons now banned. That language is not in either constitution, but the lawsuit says previous court decisions have upheld gun owners’ rights to keep weapons in common use.

Calling modern rifles “ubiquitous” in America, the lawsuit asserts that “in 2018, about 909,330 Ford F-150s were sold. Twice as many modern rifles were sold the same year.”

The lawsuit also points out that the Delaware’s Constitution is even more protective of gun owners’ rights than the U.S. Constitution because it gives people  “the right to keep and bear arms for the defense of self, family, home and state, and for hunting and recreational use.”

The swift passage along party-line votes of the Democrat-sponsored bills, some of which had been introduced previously but failed, came in the wake of the May 24 massacre of 19 elementary school students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. That gunman used an AR-15 rifle, as have gunmen in many other mass shootings, including one that took 10 lives outside a Buffalo supermarket 10 days before the violence in Uvalde.

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Jeff Hague, president of the sportsmen’s group, says Delaware’s ban is not only unconstitutional but also misguided.

“It’s not used disproportionately in crime, it’s the other way around,’’ he said, noting that FBI statistics show that the vast majority of firearms offenses are committed with handguns.

Jeff Hague of the Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association says the ban is unconstitutional. (Courtesy of Jeff Hague)

But instead of addressing the mental health crisis that he says afflicts the mass shooters, Hague says lawmakers and Carney decided to illegally target the weapon.

“So in our view, this is a misguided attempt to solve a social problem,” Hague said. “It does nothing more than interfere with the rights of law-abiding citizens. And we’re talking about constitutional rights.”

Gov. Carney’s office had no comment on the lawsuit.

But Mara Gorman, lead Delaware volunteer of Moms Demand Action, the nation’s largest grassroots organization advocating for stricter gun laws, said she believes the new laws will pass constitutional muster.

The Delaware weapons ban was based on a 2013 Maryland statute that has so far withstood legal challenges.

Gorman addressed the argument that assault-style weapons are in common use.

“How we have seen them in common use repeatedly in the past few months is that they’re used to shoot innocent civilians in mass shootings,” she said.”I do believe that the public would like to see these weapons not in common use.”

Gorman also noted that the ban allows people who owned assault-style weapons before Carney signed the bill on June 30 can keep them, as long as they can prove they were obtained legally. They can also take them to shooting competitions.

“We basically never stop fighting to make people safer,’’ she said. “But we also are not interested in taking people’s guns away from them.”

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