The debate over how to change Delaware gun laws has begun. House Judiciary Committee took up House Bill 35, which would require background checks for private gun sales.
Rep. Valerie Longhurst, who sponsored the bill as well as Andrew Lippstone with the governor’s legal counsel, fielded questions from the committee and house members.
Govenor Jack Markell (D-Del) and Attorney Beau Biden (D-Del) started pushing for a reform in Delaware gun laws in January. Their initial goal was to close the so-called “gun show loop hole”. A similar bill that would have required background checks failed in the last session. This new round of gun legislation was proposed a month after the mass shootings at the Sandy Hill Elementary in Connecticut.
“In just the last six years, close to 3,500 people were denied firearms because they failed a background check at a gun store,” explained Rep. Longhurst in a statement announcing the bill’s hearing. “Unless we establish universal background checks, those same people can just go to a gun show or another private gun seller to buy a firearm. Why shouldn’t the same criteria apply to all of these gun sales? This bill would close that loophole and keep guns out of the hands of people who should never have the chance to purchase them.”
At the hearing Wednesday Longhurst and Lippstone proposed an amendment to further clarify the bill by adding to the definition of transfer.
“It will make it clear that its not a transfer when you return a gun that was repaired its not a transfer if two people walk into a gun shop and request background check, the potential buyer fails the background check, it’s not a transfer to return that weapon to the original owner and it is also not a transfer if you loan a firearm under certain circumstances in particular, for 72 hours or less, between persons who are personally known to each other for lawful purposes,” said Lippstone.
The amendment also creates an exemption for individuals who can’t get photo identification for religious reasons, such as the Amish faith.
“It would establish a procedure where by the state bureau of investigation could do a background check on behalf of those persons,” said Lippstone.
Many questions were tossed around but one of the biggest arguments is that the bill is redundant.
“If a person has a firearm and is not permitted to have a firearm, no matter where they’ve gotten the firearm, it’s already illegal,” stated Rep. Jeff Spiegelman (R-11th district). “So this bill just makes something that is already illegal further illegal. Is that just not redundant?”
“It’s not redundant at all,” responded Lippstone. “In Delaware, and all over the country, since 1994 there have been more than 200 million background checks preformed. About two million transactions have been denied because the person failed a background check. It makes very little sense to have a background check system through licensed dealers but not have it for everyone else. It’s like having half of a system.”
Rep. Speigelman also argued that criminals who cannot possess a firearm are already obtaining weapons illegally and would likely ignore the private background check law.
“If they’re prohibited from owning the firearm then what is going to stop them from simply ignoring this bill and obtaining a firearm through various purposes anyway,” asked Speigelman. “Criminals don’t follow the law so how are we going to force criminals to follow the law if they’re already criminals for not being able to own the gun in the first place?”
Lippstone explained that the private background check would begin eliminating the availability of illegal firearms floating around the state because it would extend the paper trail of who obtains the gun.
“Every fire arm starts out as a legal firearm, meaning it starts out in the legal stream of commence,” said Lippstone. “Under federal laws and regulations, you can trace a firearm from the manufacturer to a distributor, you can trace it from a distributor to the dealer, you can trace it from the dealer to the first purchaser from an FFL. From there, the trail runs cold. There’s no requirement under Delaware law that individuals undergo background check in connection with those private sales so, all of these things add up to the point that background checks work”
He added that the government wouldn’t be the ones storing the background check information and would have little involvement.
“The records are kept at a licensed dealer,” said Lippstone. “Except for the religious exception that we talked about, the government will not be involved. These are records kept at a licensed dealer at the place of business with respect to the firearms they sell from their own inventory.”
Bob Miller, co-owner of Miller’s Gun Center in New Castle provided his expertise as a veteran fire arms dealer. He said it’s already common for private sellers to inquire about background checks.
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have two individuals selling a firearm, have it transferred to a licensed dealer,” said Miller. “We probably get somewhere between 10-25 phone calls a week, where private citizens want to do the right thing. And they ask the question and we’ll take the time and explain to them that by state law, it is not required that you transfer a firearm through a licensed dealer, if you’re selling it from one private citizen to another. We get individuals who want to sell a firearm to a neighbor or a family member or a co-worker. But we advise them to always look at the situation. If the fire arm is stolen from your friend or your coworker, that ultimately it could end up in a crime and it is a prudent thing to do to spend the time and energy to have the firearm transferred to a licensed dealer.”
Testimony from the public was expressed as well including individuals on behalf of the NRA, private gun sellers, family court and the Delaware Coalition Against Gun Violence.
A continuation of the hearing on House Bill 35 is set for March 20.