Democrats advance gun control bills in Delaware legislature

June 8, 2022 GMT

DOVER, Del. (AP) — Bills banning the sale or possession of a wide variety of semiautomatic firearms in Delaware and prohibiting anyone under age 21 from buying a firearm are headed to the House floor after clearing a Democrat-led committee Wednesday.

The bills are part of a package of gun restrictions Gov. John Carney and fellow Democrats are pushing to pass by the end of this month in the wake of recent mass shootings in other states.

The ban on what lawmakers described as “assault weapons” targets more than 60 specific models of semiautomatic rifles, pistols and shotguns, as well as “copycat weapons.” That term applies to any semiautomatic rifle that can accept a detachable magazine and has two additional features, such as a folding stock or pistol grip, and to any semiautomatic shotgun with a folding stock.

The legislation, sponsored by House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst and scheduled for a floor vote Thursday, is similar to other bills Democrats have tried unsuccessfully to pass in recent years.

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During a public hearing Wednesday, Longhurst rejected the notion that her bill bans any weapons, suggesting it simply bans future sales.

“This isn’t a ban. It’s a discontinuation,” Longhurst said. “You will not be allowed to purchase going forward.”

Longhurst said the intent of the legislation to make sure the next mass shooting does not happen in Delaware.

“This is a weapon of war. It’s not a weapon to have on the streets,” said Longhurst, who claimed “assault rifles” were responsible for 85% of fatalities in shootings involving four or more deaths.

The bill would not prohibit the possession, or the transport or transfer to a family member, of a targeted firearm that was lawfully possessed or bought before the law’s effective date. It would, however, restrict possession to the gun owner’s property, other private property with that property owner’s consent, and to shooting ranges.

It also includes an exception for attendance at “any exhibition, display, or educational project” sponsored or authorized by a law enforcement agency or recognized entity that promotes education about firearms. It’s unclear whether that exception would allow the display of legally owned firearms at gun rights rallies or other public venues.

The bill also includes exemptions for law enforcement, federal government and military personnel acting within the scope of official business, as well as retired police officers and armored car guards.

Opponents argued the bill violates gun ownership rights enshrined in the state constitution and will do little to stem gun violence in Delaware, where almost all shootings involve handguns.

“Ask any police officer, it’s not the rifles,” said Jeff Hague, president of the Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association, a gun rights advocacy group and Delaware’s official NRA state affiliate.

Hague accused gun control advocates of alienating too many people instead of working with gun rights advocates on solutions to gun violence and of trying to take advantage of recent tragedies “to make a political statement.”

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One things lawmakers from both parties seem to agree on is that the fight over gun control will wind up in the courts.

“That’s probably where it’s going to end up,” Longhurst acknowledged, a sentiment echoed by House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf.

“Maybe it’s time we have a court decision, a ruling on the assault weapons bill, and this bill,” said Schwartzkopf, chief sponsor of the age-restriction bill. “Instead of all of us wannabe lawyers, including me, sitting around saying, ‘It’s unconstitutional, it’s not unconstitutional.’ ... There are two sides to this argument, and neither one of us knows which one is right.”

Schwartzkopf’s bill raises the minimum age at which a person can legally possess or purchase any rifle, or firearm ammunition, from 18 to 21, the same age requirement for handguns. The bill does not apply to shotguns or muzzleloaders and allows possession of a firearm by a person under 21 for hunting or other recreational activity while under the direct supervision of a person 21 or older.

It also exempts police officers, active members of the military, and holders of concealed-carry permits. That means, for example, that a 19-year-old airman stationed at Dover Air Force Base could go to a Delaware gun shop and buy a rifle, but a 19-year-old working at a local business could not.

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Supporters of the bill note that 21 is also the minimum age to buy cigarettes or alcohol, or to place a bet at a casino.

Opponents argued that if teenagers can’t be trusted with firearms because their brains are not fully developed, as the legislation suggests, perhaps they should also be prohibited from voting, serving in the military or getting married.