Supporters of gun rights crash Del. rally to ban assault weapons, large magazines

Listen 1:42
An NRA supporter holds up a sign in front of gun-control activists in front of the Delaware State Capitol building in Dover, Del., Wednesday. (Zoe Read/WHYY)

An NRA supporter holds up a sign in front of gun-control activists in front of the Delaware State Capitol building in Dover, Del., Wednesday. (Zoe Read/WHYY)

Demonstrators crash a rally and press conference organized to discuss gun safety legislation. (Zoë Read/WHYY)

Avery Jones, 19, stood on the steps of Legislative Hall in Dover and spoke about the fear young Americans feel in the age of mass shootings.

But the University of Delaware freshman was brought to tears as a large group of gun rights advocates booed loudly.

Jones and other activists, including those from Moms Demand Action, joined Democratic lawmakers Wednesday to announce three pieces of anti-gun violence legislation.

But throughout the rally and press conference, the speakers were often overpowered by the shouts of at least 100 demonstrators carrying American flags, pro-gun signs and chanting “USA!”

The proposed measures aim to eliminate the sale and import of assault-style weapons; eliminate the sale of magazines that hold more than 15 rounds; and require prospective gun buyers to get a permit from the state’s Department of Safety and Homeland Security before they can purchase one.

Bill sponsor state Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, attempted to discuss the need for the bills. But his voice was drowned out by shouts of “Traitor!” and “Townsend’s got to go!” Police officers watched the agitated crowd.

Supporters of the bills say the changes will help prevent mass shootings and keep guns out of the hands of criminals.

Studies show the U.S. has more mass shootings than any other country. About half have involved high-capacity magazines, and semi-automatic rifles were used in several of the deadliest mass shootings.

“Combating gun violence isn’t an urgent need for any one part of our community — it is an urgent need for everyone in our state, from our streets to our schools to our houses of worship and workplaces,” said LGBTQ activist Sarah McBride.

Pike Creek resident Megin O’Donnell of Moms Demand Action survived the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas. During the event, she described the fear she and her friends felt as they fled, eventually hiding in a hangar in the nearby McCarran International Airport.

“What I remember most honestly is the silence and faces of the people around us. It was such an overwhelming moment. I think the high-capacity magazines is personal [for me] because that is what happened in Las Vegas, and I know if he had to take two or three seconds to reload, it would have saved lives,” O’Donnell said.

“I am not anti-gun in any way. My husband is a responsible gun owner. I know how to shoot a gun. What I am ‘anti’ is gun violence. I understand, for some people, it feels scary to feel their rights are being taken away. But we’re not doing that to people who are responsible, law-abiding gun owners.”

Three-pronged approach

The ban on assault-style weapons would prohibit the sale of about 60 guns in Delaware, including AK-47s, AR-15s and UZIs. The bill would exclude police and military personnel, and also grandfather in those who currently legally own this kind of firearm.  Those grandfathered in could obtain a voluntary certificate proving they’re legally allowed the firearm.

The legislation aiming to ban the sale of high-capacity magazines focuses on those capable of holding more than 15 rounds. The bill would create a buyback program giving owners until June 2020 to hand them over.

The legislation requiring a permit from the state mirrors similar efforts in other states, including New Jersey.  Applicants would be required to complete a firearm training course, submit information similar to what can be found on a driver’s license and have their fingerprints run through state and federal criminal databases. The information would be reported to law enforcement to streamline the process of investigating gun crimes.

“This is information already all collected at time of sale right now. This is not new information being collected from people purchasing firearms. Right now, this information is all required to be available for law enforcement during criminal investigations,” Townsend said. “The issue is law enforcement often has to undertake significant efforts to access that information in connection with federal partnerships. This legislation says that information is already being collected, let’s collect that in a state database so law enforcement can do the job they’re asked to do, but more quickly efficiently and effectively.”

Kathleen Lodge Brannan of Newark and other demonstrators said they believe their Second Amendment rights are being taken away.

“An AR-15 is not an assault weapon. If it was painted pink, you guys would not be so scared of it,” Brannan said.  “An AR-15 is a very good woman’s gun to target shoot with because you can adjust the stock, it doesn’t have a kick back, and it’s really satisfying when you hit that target from hundreds of yards away. Women need that kind of confidence.”

“I’m opposed to everything, anything, that’s going to tread on our constitutional rights. It’s very scary because once we lose our Second Amendment, we will lose our First Amendment, which is already starting to happen, and that’s not good for us,” she said. “We’re paying good taxpayer money for these guys to represent us, and look how outnumbered these [Moms Demand Action] ladies are.”

Townsend said the protesters were disrespectful, and he said he was disappointed they chose to chant instead of listen to the speakers.

Mitchell Denhem, one of the protest organizers, said his group needed to be heard.

“The original intent of the Second Amendment was designed so if the government was ever to turn tyrannous or invaded by a foreign nation, the militia would have the ability to rise up and protect themselves,” he said. “That’s still true today. Venezuela is prime example of people disarmed, and now they’re dying in the streets. They’re starving to death, they have a government that doesn’t care about them, and the people aren’t able to fight back because they have no Second Amendment.”

He believes lawmakers should instead focus on tough-on-crime laws and measures to address mental health.

“It’s criminals and people who are mentally unhealthy. It’s never a responsible gun owner,” Denhem said of the mass shootings. “There’s always a law broken before the shooting. Even if you look at Las Vegas, it’s illegal to have a firearm in a hotel in Nevada.”

Townsend tries again

State Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, touted his gun control bills as pro-gun protesters chant for him to resign. (Zoë Read/WHYY)

Last year, a similar assault weapons bill sponsored by Townsend was got stuck in committee. However, this year President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Hawk’s Nest, vowed to bring it to the Senate Executive Committee for a hearing and advance it to a vote on the Senate floor.

Townsend said he believes now is the right time for this legislation, which he said was drafted with the concerns of responsible gun owners in mind.

“I think senators, in part because there’s been some change over in members of the Senate, in part because of gun issues on the campaign trail and just in general — it’s sad it takes more and more tragedies week after week or month after month for people to see. Even last year I had Republican colleagues standing up saying, ‘I support background checks,’ well if you go back five or six years previous to that and look at their voting record, they didn’t vote for universal background checks,” he said.

“So there’s some level of evolution of understanding and compassion on this issue, there’s some evolution of political winds on this issue and we will continue to — not swing the pendulum too far — but push with reasonable, balanced gun laws we believe we’ve achieved through conversations with gun owners.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.