Is gun violence a health crisis in Delaware? Republicans say ‘no’

The number of Wilmington shootings rose in 2019 from a year earlier but were far below the record bloodshed of 2017. (WHYY file)

The number of Wilmington shootings rose in 2019 from a year earlier but were far below the record bloodshed of 2017. (WHYY file)

Like many Delawareans, Marie Pinkney has a personal connection to gun violence. Her first teenage love, a boy named Zachary, was shot in the back of the head and killed just days after his 20th birthday.

“Unfortunately, my story and experiences don’t stop there,” Pinkney, now a Delaware state senator, told her colleagues recently during an online legislative session.

She went on to describe others killed by guns: a close friend’s uncle who committed suicide and another friend’s cousin who was struck and killed by gunfire.

State Sen. Marie Pinkney, a Democrat, advocates for her resolution declaring gun violence a public health crisis in Delaware. Republican lawmakers opposed the effort because it was only focused on guns and not other forms of violence. (Del. State Senate/screengrab)

Those experiences were the backdrop for the freshman senator’s first resolution, introduced last month in the General Assembly.

“I think it’s imperative that we declare gun violence a public health crisis in our state because that’s what it is,” she said.

Nowhere is gun violence more prevalent in Delaware than in the city of Wilmington. Earlier this month, city police chief Robert Tracy presented sobering numbers on the growth of gun violence in Wilmington amid the pandemic. Even though overall crime was down in 2020, shooting incidents were up 52% and homicides increased 35%. A total of 168 people were shot in Wilmington in 2020, a 33% increase over the 112 people shot in 2019.

Several years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent researchers to Wilmington to explore the causes of the city’s gun violence and recommend strategies to reduce it. But despite that federal approach to gun violence as a public health problem, Republican members of the state Senate rejected Pinkney’s resolution.

“You continue to refer to gun violence when, in fact, the gun wasn’t the culprit,” said Sen. Dave Lawson. “Society is at blame here, not the tool. If the wrench doesn’t fit the bolt when you’re working on the engine, what do you do? Charge the wrench for being inappropriate?”

He says he would whole-heartedly support a resolution if it was calling out all violence, rather than singling out incidents involving guns.

“I want to jump on board to absolutely curb violence in this state,” he said. “But let’s not pick on an inanimate object that is incapable of doing anything by itself. A loaded firearm sitting on a table hurts no one.”

State Sen. Dave Lawson, a Republican, said society was to blame for violence in the state, not inanimate guns. (Del. State Senate/screengrab)

Pinkney took issue with Lawson’s phrasing that guns were being “picked on” or bullied.

“I find it interesting that we’re attempting to split hairs here by discussing that ‘the gun’ is the issue,” she said. “That’s where we’re splitting hairs on a resolution that just identifies that we have a problem, that we have a crisis.”

Other Republicans, like Sen. Richardson, rejected the idea altogether. “There is no such thing as gun violence,” he said. He suggested violence could be curbed with more life-skills training classes in schools or legislation that helped parents stay together.

Sen. Brian Pettyjohn said he was touched by Pinkney’s personal story, but he also pointed to other instruments beyond guns that can also be deadly. “Any loss of life is tragic, whether by baseball bat, knife, car accident, gun, it’s an absolute tragedy,” he said. “We’re not going to eliminate this by focusing on guns. If it’s not a gun, it’s going to be a knife or baseball bat or going all the way back to biblical times, a rock. … We need to be looking at the people who are committing these crimes.”

Pettyjohn has his own history with guns. He was charged with a felony after trying to carry a gun onto an airplane in Maryland. Pettyjohn, who has a Delaware concealed-carry license, said he inadvertently left the gun in the bag while packing. In a 2017 deal with prosecutors, he agreed to probation before judgment on a misdemeanor charge of carrying a handgun. A felony charge of attempting to carry a firearm on an aircraft, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, was dismissed.

Pinkney’s fellow freshman, Democratic Sen. Sarah McBride, came to her defense and the defense of others who’ve lost loved ones to gun violence.

“To tell those mothers weeping over their child’s death, killed in real time because of the access to an automatic weapon, that this issue, and that easy access to guns is not a health issue, I think is an insult to that mother’s grief,” McBride said. “To tell a mother in Wilmington that the stray bullet that killed her child is not a matter of her child’s health or her family’s health, I think is an insult to her grief.”

She said while Republicans have given broad support to efforts to combat the state’s rampant opioid overdose epidemic by limiting access to prescription painkillers, there is a disconnect when it comes to taking similar measures to restrict access to firearms in response to the problem of gun violence.

“Yet for some reason passing understanding, when we get to a crisis that is far more deadly because of guns, somehow the mechanism for that violence, the mechanism for that death — unlike prescription drugs — is somehow irrelevant to the conversation,” she said. “When American Medical Association calls this a public health crisis, I think we’re doing well if we’re listening to the doctors.”

Pinkney’s resolution was eventually approved in a 13-8 vote. Sen. Bruce Ennis of Smyrna was the only Democrat to join the body’s seven Republicans in voting against it.

The debate over the non-binding resolution could foreshadow future discussions on actual legislation that would reform some of Delaware’s gun laws. Gun control efforts, including an assault weapons ban, have been stymied in recent years.

“We can go on and on … about legislative proposals to try to address some of this, but the idea that there can’t even be acknowledgement of the fact that, in so many ways, this is clearly a public health crisis is disheartening, even if it’s not surprising,” said Democratic Sen. Bryan Townsend, who sponsored a previous attempt to ban assault weapons.

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