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Tougher straw purchase penalties, other gun measures stall

March 15, 2018 GMT

DOVER, Del. (AP) — A bill toughening the penalty for straw purchases of guns is heading to Democratic Gov. John Carney after Senate approval Thursday, but quick passage of legislation outlawing bump stocks was thwarted when the Senate added amendments to a bill that cleared the House last week.

A measure allowing authorities to seize firearms from people deemed by mental health providers and police to be a danger to themselves or others also stalled Thursday when it was pulled from the House agenda.

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The straw purchase bill raises the maximum sentence for a first offense from three years to five. It’s unclear what impact the new law might have, however. There are few arrests, and even fewer convictions in state court, for straw purchases, in which a person buys a gun to sell or give to someone prohibited from having one.

Meanwhile, the bill aimed at keeping guns away from people with mental health issues was pulled from Thursday’s House agenda for revisions amid concerns about some of its provisions.

Under the bill, police who are alerted by a mental health provider could investigate to determine if there is probable cause that a person is dangerous to himself or others and possesses a firearm. With no notice to the person police could seek an immediate, temporary court order requiring the person to surrender any guns or ammunition. The attorney general’s office could then petition Superior Court for an indefinite order requiring the person to give up any guns or ammunition.

If the attorney general’s office doesn’t file a petition within 60 days of the temporary order, the guns would be returned to the individual. If a petition is filed, the person would have a right to a hearing in Superior Court, and authorities would have to prove by “clear and convincing” evidence that the individual is dangerous.

The American Civil Liberties Union is concerned that the bill allows a court to prohibit a person deemed dangerous from living with someone who owns firearms, and that there’s no time limit in which a Superior Court judge would have to hold a hearing on a petition by the attorney general’s office.

Lawmakers also have concerns about the bill defining bump stocks, trigger cranks and similar devices as “destructive weapons” whose sale or possession is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

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The bill requires people who legally own such devices to surrender them to the government without compensation, which critics say amounts to an unconstitutional government taking. People would have 120 days to surrender the devices, after which mere possession would be a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

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The Senate on Thursday approved an amendment making a first offense for possession a misdemeanor, unless the device is attached to a weapon used in a crime.

Amendment sponsor Bruce Ennis, a Smyrna Democrat, expressed concern about the 120-day window in which people would have to learn about the ban and surrender the devices.

“We have people in this state who don’t even know we have a senior citizen tax credit, and we enacted that in 1990,” Ennis noted.

The Senate also approved a Republican amendment stating that relinquishment of a bump stock or trigger crank is not proof of possession. The change is intended to allow a person who might unexpectedly come into possession of a device, such as through a deceased family member’s estate, to turn in the device without fear of prosecution.

Two other Republican amendments failed to win Senate passage.

One would have created an affirmative defense to prosecution if the person did not know that the device in question was a bump stock or trigger crank when it was sold, bought or possessed.

The other would have created a one-year compensation program under which people would be paid $100 for each bump stock surrendered to authorities, and $15 for each trigger crank.

Republican lawmakers said that failing to provide compensation will result in the state being sued for unconstitutional taking of property, and that litigation will cost taxpayers far more than the $30,000 they suggested setting aside for a buyback program.

Sen. Colin Bonini, a Dover-area Republican, said he was confident the legislation will be fixed.

“It’s going to get fixed, because we’re going to get sued, and we’re going to lose,” he said.

Democrats suggested that any constitutional infirmity could be addressed in a separate bill.