Five years later, Beau Biden gun bill finally becomes law

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In 2013, then-Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden made a pitch to Delaware lawmakers for legislation designed to keep guns away from people with mental illness who might pose a danger to themselves or others.

“Most of the mass shootings that have occurred in this nation in the last two decades, behind each one of them is someone who common sense and most psychiatrists or medical professionals would say is a person who should not be in touch with or have contact with a weapon,” Biden said during an April 2013 press conference in Wilmington.

Biden’s push for what he called “a common-sense approach” came just months after the mass shooting of 20 first-graders and six staff members at an elementary school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.

Despite quick approval in the state House, the Delaware bill languished without a vote in the state Senate.

State Rep. David Bentz, D-Newark/Christiana, who was then a legislative aide, said that the bill’s failure to pass was “dumbfounding.” Bentz said he still wonders “why a bill that was so carefully crafted in a bipartisan fashion, so expertly put together, unfortunately didn’t have the muster to get to the governor’s desk.”

Biden died of brain cancer in 2015. But this year, following another mass shooting at a Florida high school in February, legislation similar to the 2013 version — and named in his honor — has been signed into law.

Delaware Gov. John Carney signed the Beau Biden Gun Violence Prevention Act Monday afternoon at the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute, named for Beau’s father, former Vice President Joe Biden.

“Today is as much a tribute to our beloved Beau Biden and the Biden family, a celebration of working together, as well as a testament to what makes Delaware special,” Carney said.

With some limitations, the new law prohibits anyone who has been committed to a hospital for treatment of a mental condition from owning a gun. It also makes gun ownership illegal for anyone who has committed a violent crime but was found not guilty for reasons of mental illness.

The measure also requires health professionals to notify police about anyone believed to present a danger to themselves or others. Police can then seek an order from Superior Court to require those individuals to surrender their guns, if the court determines they are a danger.

The former vice president said the bill signing fulfilled a promise Beau made to Delawareans and that the law’s greatest impact might be in helping prevent suicides. “Of the thousands of people who die as a consequence of gunshot wounds, the majority are self-inflicted. They are suicides.”

Beau’s sister, Ashley, talked about her brother’s tenacity in pushing for the bill. “Beau was committed to keeping our communities safe, protecting our communities from senseless gun violence that has ravished our nation,” she said.

National Alliance on Mental Illness Delaware chapter’s executive director Joshua Thomas said the group backed the legislation specifically because it doesn’t cast a blanket ban on anyone with a mental illness.

“We believe this offers a level of protection where people will not be singled out simply because they have a mental health diagnosis,” Thomas said.

Provisions also address seizing a gun from someone who poses no danger to themselves or others.

“It actually spells out several circumstances, which involve due process and the ability to appeal the decision should someone believe that they have been unfairly deprived of a firearm.” he said.

It’s the second gun bill to be approved by the General Assembly and signed by Carney. Earlier this month, lawmakers approved a measure increasing penalties for straw purchases — a ruse in which a buyer legally acquires a weapon for someone who is prohibited from possessing a gun.

But there are several other gun measures in various stages of the legislative process. Other legislation before the General Assembly includes a bill that would ban bump stocks, which were used in the Las Vegas massacre last year. Bills that would reduce the legal capacity limit on magazines, ban assault weapons, and raise the minimum age for owning a firearm are still awaiting legislative approval.

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