Two Democrat-championed gun control bills shot out of the Delaware Senate Thursday, piercing Republican protests that each was unnecessary and contained unconstitutional phrasing.
The proposed laws, today styled as “common-sense” bills, won’t be considered in the House until after the two-week spring break, which begins Friday.
“For years, Delawareans have urged us to pass bold public safety reforms capable of stemming the gun violence that has brought bloodshed and devastation to our communities,” said Sen. Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, D-Wilmington, the prime sponsor of Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 1, in a press release that came out after the session.
“They asked us to raise the level of responsible gun ownership in this state. They expected us to give law enforcement the tools they need. And they demanded that we show courage in fulfilling our promises to them,” she said. “Today, my colleagues in the Senate did exactly that and showed that Delawareans will no longer allow vocal hard liners to stand in the way of progress as more innocent lives are taken from us with each passing week.”
Senators holding a press conference after the Senate session said that no one had enough time to study the bills and that they were rushed through after being introduced March 25.
“There has not been a lot of time for the public, even if they knew what was in previous versions of the bill from previous General Assemblies, to fully analyze and vet these new bills,” said Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown. “There was not enough time for certain groups to get memberships together or boards together to discuss these bills, to take a formal position on these bills before they came to the Senate.
“They’ll have that opportunity before they go to the House. But those groups and individuals really did not get a chance to have their voices heard in the first chamber, in the originating chamber, before they were passed by the Senate.”
Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 3, which will require permits and training before buying a gun, was introduced Thursday morning following Wednesday’s Judiciary Committee hearing, during which sponsors promised to make some changes.
It added requirements that the Department of Safety and Homeland Security purge data related to handgun sales after two years and extended the previously proposed implementation date by an additional year.
Opponents say it will cost a person who wants to buy a gun hundreds more for fingerprinting and training classes and is unconstitutional on several grounds, including making it harder for lower-income people to afford guns.
Lockman told the senators that the bills are based on other states’ laws that have passed constitutional tests and will help stop straw purchases, the term for a person buying a gun for another person who isn’t legally able to do it. She cited studies saying that will lower suicides and homicides.
It specifically will benefit the city of Wilmington, where children have a greater chance of being killed by guns than any other American city, she said.
“This does not infringe on one’s right to bear arms, ultimately.” she said in describing the bill. “Responsible gun owners will still be able to obtain a handgun. Hunters and sportsmen will not be prevented from enjoying their sport. But what it will do is bolster our culture of responsible gun ownership and keep handguns away from criminals, and that will save lives.”
She and others Democrats said they hear repeatedly from their constituents now and during campaigning that people wanted gun control. They cited a study that say 74% of Delawareans up and down the state want it. Republicans countered that they are being deluged by constituents from both parties who wanted the bills stopped.
“This bill and the rhetoric — and I’m using the term rhetoric in the classical sense — used by the sponsors and supporters underline the lack of understanding between our rural areas and our suburban and urban areas of Delaware,” Pettyjohn said.
“There’s a stark contrast between the beliefs of our neighbors of the state being able to protect themselves, especially in our rural areas where we don’t have police close by, and those who want the government coming in to solve a problem that doesn’t exist in many areas of the state and quite frankly is insulting to those who value their liberty and independence. Of course, liberty and independence, as we all know, is the motto of the state of Delaware.”
Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, who owns a gun shop, said, “I’m just concerned with all of this that we’re using this to get at gun ownership and denial of Second Amendment rights.”
He asked Lockman what was going to happen when people just ignored the law, which seemed to surprise her. He also said the laws were going to awaken a giant, but did not elaborate during the sessiona.
Later, Lawson said he meant that people would revolt. Laws being forced down people’s throats by government today reminded him of Colonial times, when people took grievances to the governor and to the King.
“When people have enough, they’re gonna throw off government, the change of government will be thrown off,” he said. “I’m not advocating for violence. Don’t anybody go down that road. But what I’m saying is that the public will not stand for them.
“We are a free nation. We are supposed to be open. We have guaranteed rights by God in the Constitution, and they are being trampled, absolutely trampled, and the voices of the people are not being heard. And they’re not being obeyed and sooner or later that giant that I referenced will have to stand up and make their voices heard.”
Several members of the opposition questioned why the state should spend money on permits and background checks when most people seemed to agree that societal problems were at the root of gun violence.
Sen. Sarah McBride, D-North Wilmington, responded.
“I’d like it to be known that this majority caucus has already voted historic investment in our schools,” she said. “We voted to increase the minimum wage giving a pay increase to a third of Delawareans. We’ll be voting to make sure that we have mental health services in our schools. And so we are going after the root causes of this violence. We’re going after all of the contributing components to this violence.”
Senate Bill 6, introduced by Sen. Dave Sokola, D-Newark, would make illegal any gun magazine that holds more than 17 rounds. Sokola said he originally wanted to limit the magazines to 15 rounds, but discovered technical issues that made it more practical to leave it at 17. That is higher than the 10 rounds allowed by Maryland, New Jersey and New York.
The bill will also establish a fund to buy back magazines for $10 until June 30, 2022. Then the magazines would be illegal. A person caught with a magazine would be charged with a misdemeanor crime on the first arrest, a felony the second.
Sokola was pounded with questions about details in the bill, many following the same lines as questions about the permit bill.
Sen. Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, who owns a gun shop, asked if he was going to be allow to sell the magazine he has to people in other states if the bill becomes law. Sokola assured him that he could.
Senate Republicans leading the charge against the bills were joined by Sen. Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna. The opposition repeatedly questioned the constitutionality of both bills, each side calling witnesses to answer technical and legal questions.
Republicans and Ennis generally were unsatisfied with all the answers, pointing out that if the bills become law, they will definitely be taken to court.
Hocker said in the after-session press conference that lawsuits are inevitable.
“I will guarantee that is going to happen from the phone calls I got today,” Pettyjohn said. “You know we are hearing from a lot of the groups out there that they are prepared before the ink was even dry to file a lawsuit to stop these being implemented.”
Sokola said in a press release that the federal government had failed to act on gun magazines despite clear evidence its 10-year ban on large-capacity magazines worked.
“Delaware today took a substantial step forward in addressing gun violence, and I am incredibly proud of my colleagues for their courage and their conviction,” he said in a press release that came out after the bills has been passed.
The bills will be assigned to committees in the House before coming to the floor.
“It is reasonable and prudent to conclude that individuals who wish to purchase a handgun should complete a training course, so they are better able to safely handle and use that firearm,” said Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker, D-Wilmington, in a press release. She is the lead House sponsor of the permit bill.
“This bill does not restrict a law-abiding person’s ability to purchase a firearm. As a Second Amendment supporter, this is a public safety measure which ensures that a person who is buying a handgun has learned how to properly store, care for and use that deadly weapon,” she said.
The lead House sponsor of the magazine bill, Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha, D-Wilmington North, said in a press release that there is no practical reason for a person to be able to fire dozens of bullets at once.
“Limiting the number of rounds that can be fired without reloading is a meaningful way to reduce gun violence – without restricting any law-abiding person’s ability to buy, own or possess a firearm,” he said.