Gun Debate

House committee OKs semi-automatic, under 21 purchase ban

Charlie Megginson Government, Headlines

Gun Debate

Public commenters for and against gun purchase bans speak at Legislative Hall on Wednesday, June 8, 2022. (Charlie Megginson/Delaware LIVE)

Bills to ban semi-automatic firearms and restrict the purchase of guns by Delawareans 21 and older were released from a House committee Wednesday and will advance to the House floor for a vote.

The hearing attracted a crowd of well over 100 concerned citizens on both sides of the issue, many of whom filled lawmakers’ seats in the House chamber.

House Bill 450, which would ban semi-automatic weapons, asserts that “the proliferation and use of assault weapons poses a threat to the health, safety, and security of all citizens of this state.”

“The intention of this legislation is simple and clear: to make sure that the next Uvalde, the next Buffalo, the next Sandy Hook, does not take place in the state of Delaware,” said Majority Leader Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Delaware City, the bill’s sponsor.

“It’s to make sure in Delaware, it is against the law to obtain the kinds of weapons that can inflict this level of carnage and devastation — highly lethal weapons with their origins in the field of military combat, which have ended up in our schools and our shopping malls,” Longhurst said.

A list specifying the weapons affected by the legislation is available here.

HB 451 would make it illegal for a person under the age of 21 to purchase, own, possess, or control a firearm or ammunition except under limited circumstances. 

“We are witnessing things in this country that I never thought we would never see,” said House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth, the bill’s sponsor. “I have guns, I believe in the Second Amendment, but I also believe there’s a right, by government, to put certain laws in place and this is one I think we can do.”

Democrats began the hearing by acknowleding the controversy surrounding the bills and imploring the public to respect others’ viewpoints and maintain civility, which, for the most part, they did. 

Republicans on the committee said the General Assembly should focus on improving mental health care and hardening schools. 

“We do have a terrible mental health crisis in America,” said Rep. Tim Dukes, R-Laurel. “But by just doing a gun-grab, I think we take a risk of losing our ability to protect ourselves.

Minority Leader Rep. Danny Short, R-Seaford, drew attention to bills Republicans have introduced to install key card devices on school doors, bulletproof glass in school entryways, video cameras, and other security improvements to Delaware’s public and charter schools.

“I’m saying we put $100 million toward helping our schools to get safe. That’s what we should be talking about today,” Short said. “This whole thing tears me up. I think we ought to be talking about something where we can really make a difference. This is going to divide people. This is going to make everyone in this room go to the corners.”

Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, on Wednesday introduced the “Bipartisan Omnibus School Safety Fund,” which would allocate $65 million to hardening schools. 

“As the General Assembly debates issues pertaining to public safety, we must make school security a priority,” Lawson said in a statement. “Protecting our society’s youngest and most vulnerable, as well as those who are responsible for them in a school setting, is necessary.”

Public commenters at Wednesday’s hearing were signed up such that they would alternate between those who support the bills and those who oppose them. As a result, classic arguments for and against gun control shot back and forth like a ping pong ball on a black-and-white checkered field. 

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Spectators and public commenters speak on House Bills 450 and 451 Wednesday. (Charlie Megginson/Delaware LIVE)

Proponents said the bills will protect children, remove guns from the hands of dangerous people, and ensure young people between the ages of 18 and 21 have time for their brains to fully develop before they assume the responsibilities associated with possessing high-power, high-capacity firearms. 

The right to bear arms is not absolute, proponents said, and it’s only a matter of time before the devastation experienced in other parts of the country finds its way into Delaware.

Opponents said gun ownership is a right granted by God and enshrined in the U.S. and Delaware Constitutions. 

It’s designed so people may protect themselves, their families and their property against those who would wish them harm, including governments trending toward tyranny, opponents said, and the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. 

Longhurst acknowledged the bills, if passed, will be met with litigation.

“I do believe in the three branches of government, the legislature — we make the laws, and the judiciary — they interpret the laws,” Longhurst said. “So that’s where it’s probably going to end up, but I can tell you the seven other states that have this in place have upheld the ban.”

Both bills were released along party lines.

House and Senate Democrats are also advancing Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 6, which would ban firearm magazines that hold more than 17 rounds of ammunition. 

A bipartisan bill, HB 423, strengthens background checks by reinstituting the state’s Firearm Transaction Approval Program.

Lawmakers are also expected to introduce two more bills in the coming days to hold gun manufacturers and dealers “liable for reckless or negligent actions that lead to gun violence,” and to ban the use of devices that convert handguns into fully automatic weapons.

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