A bill would removed a reference to BB guns in the Delaware Code definition of firearms. (Wikimedia photo by Hustvedt)

Senate committee considers updating firearm definition

Sam Haut Government, Headlines

A bill would removed a reference to BB guns in the Delaware Code definition of firearms. (Wikimedia photo by Hustvedt)

A bill would removed a reference to BB guns in the Delaware Code definition of firearms. (Wikimedia photo by Hustvedt)

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday discussed a Republican bill that would change the state’s definition of a firearm to exclude a reference to BB guns and be more in line with the federal definition.

The Delaware Code’s definition of a firearm currently “includes any weapon from which a shot, projectile or other object may be discharged by force of combustion, explosive, gas and/or mechanical means, whether operable or inoperable, loaded or unloaded. It does not include a BB gun.”

House Substitute 1 for House Bill 224, sponsored by Rep. Jeffrey Spiegelman, R-Townsend/Hartly, would change that definition to be “a weapon from which a shot, projectile, or other object is designed or may readily be converted to be discharged by force of an explosive, whether operable or inoperable, loaded or unloaded.” and “the frame or receiver of a weapon” that’s defined in the first definition.

Because Senate committees don’t vote publicly on bills, it was not immediately clear how the committee voted.

Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, said the current definition is too broad and could include things that people wouldn’t normally consider to be a firearm.

“So that means paintball guns are a firearm under Delaware code,” Pettyjohn said. “A slingshot is a firearm, under Delaware Code. It is an extremely broad definition of a firearm, and one that Delaware is the only state that uses. The other 49 states use the more narrowly tailored definition of firearm that’s currently used by the federal government as well. This has led to confusion on behalf of some retailers.”

Sen. Kyle Evans Gay, D-Arden, head of the committee, said she has concerns about changing the definition.

“I do have some concerns about certain types of firearms that I have learned may not be considered firearms in other states,” Gay said. “But I think that it’s important for us to call out where our concerns are and to regulate around our specific concerns and to be clear in that way. So I think it’s a great conversation to get started even though I have some reservations, to be quite honest, just about, you know how far we can go.”

In public comments, Paul Johnson said that he supports the change because something like a spear gun, which can be used for fishing, is classified as a firearm.

“You’re looking at somebody with a stick with a little spike in the end going into the streams and stuff to get fish or something,” Johnson said. “I’’s a weapon because they had it attached to the spring or a rubber tube like a slingshot. So it’s something that is basically harmless. And it’s not exactly what you call a long-distance thing. It only goes a few feet. But, again, it can be classified as a firearm.”

Rick Armitage, a National Rifle Association lobbyist, said he supports the bill because it clears up confusion that the current definition of firearm creates.

The legislation passed in recent times now makes it a crime for anyone under 21 to own a bow, slingshot, paintball gun, crossbow or any items that mechanically shoot a projectile,” Armitage said. “If you drive on a school property with any of those items in your car and don’t have a concealed carry permit, you can be charged with a Class E felony. … There are many more examples of the confusion and conflict the current definition creates.”

Traci Manza Murphy, executive director of the Delaware Coalition Against Gun Violence, said the group supports updating the definition, but wants the Legislature to wait on passing the bill until other legislation is also filed.

“Of particular concern are easily accessible YouTube videos that encourage criminals and persons prohibited to buy air rifles because of the opportunity to bypass background checks,” Murphy said. “Delaware leaders should do more to protect our communities and not seek opportunities to do less. We encourage the Senate to wait to vote on this measure until companion bills can be researched, prepared and filed.”

Mike Ripple, a sergeant speaking on behalf of Delaware State Police, agreed on waiting.

“We just wanted that discussion going forward to make sure that these statutes are all going to be in sync as we move forward and do this. … There’s nothing pressing that we can’t take the next six months and do this the right way,” Ripple said. “I think, as DOJ has said, we obviously want to sit down and be more comprehensive as we go forward here.”

The bill, which doesn’t require a fiscal note, has 19 additional sponsors and cosponsors – 12 Republicans and seven Democrats – and unanimously passed the House on June 22.

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