DOVER — A House committee approved legislation Tuesday that would require a permit to purchase a handgun after a lengthy and sometimes-fiery hearing.
Following a four-hour meeting, the House Judiciary Committee voted on party lines to release the bill to the floor.
Around 60 members of the public, plus a few expert witnesses, testified, with a slight majority speaking against the measure. Another three dozen or so individuals signed up to speak but were unable to due to time constraints.
Though the bill was released by the committee, it likely will not be voted on by the full House until an amendment addressing some concerns raised Tuesday is drafted and filed.
The chamber could consider the proposal along with another bill prohibiting magazines capable of holding more than 17 rounds that was approved by the same committee two weeks earlier. Both measures already have passed the Senate.
Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 3 would mandate individuals seeking to buy a handgun first complete a training course before submitting an application to the Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security. The agency would issue a qualified-purchaser card within 30 days as long as the applicant is eligible, enabling the cardholder to buy as many handguns as he or she wants in the next six months.
Applicants would have to pay for training and a background check.
Delawareans who already have a concealed-carry permit would be exempt from the training course.
Under the bill, the state would maintain a database of those who applied for a permit, using it solely to help trace firearms and identify criminals. Records would be cleared after two years, and the information would not be public.
Per the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 10 states have passed laws requiring individuals to get a license to buy at least some type of firearm.
“The status quo, a gun violence epidemic without parallel in the developed world, is simply not acceptable,” Attorney General Kathy Jennings testified in support, referencing the fact the United States makes up a disproportionate share of gun homicides among developed nations.
Backers say they believe the measure will make it harder for criminals to get firearms. They see it as a common-sense proposal that adds a level of protection without violating individual rights.
“The time for discussion and debate is over. The time for action is past due,” said Cara Cordrey, describing gun violence as impacting the entire state.
Jesse Roy relayed his experience as a student taking part in regular school shooting drills, urging lawmakers to take steps to prevent students from “the dread, fear and terror” of a school massacre.
Each side presented data in its favor. Several supporters pointed to research indicating Connecticut saw a decline in gun homicides and suicides after it enacted a permit-to-purchase law and Missouri had increases in the same categories when it repealed its permit requirement. Also referenced was a 2013 report from Johns Hopkins University that found permit-to-purchase laws result in a stark decline in “crime gun exports.”
But others cited a 2018 study from the RAND Corp., a think tank, that concluded it’s unclear whether such laws lower gun crimes. Similarly, a 2019 analysis from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found 90% of federal inmates who possessed a gun during their offense did not get it from a “retail source.”
Polling released by the Delaware Coalition Against Gun Violence in March reported 74% of Delawareans back a permit-to-purchase statute, including 69% of gun owners. That figure has drawn skepticism from gun rights advocates, with Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association President Jeff Hague noting in the committee hearing a rally by Legislative Hall against gun control over the weekend drew more than 1,000 people.
Opponents sought to refute arguments in favor of the bill, calling it unconstitutional and counterproductive.
Deborah Remer said the legislation will, if passed, make women substantially less safe by making it more costly and time-consuming to get a firearm. While she was able to quickly buy a gun for protection after she left her abusive ex, Ms. Remer said she would have remained in danger if this law was already on the books.
Bridgette Dempsey sounded a similar note: “When would a single parent or a stay-at-home mom have the extra time to jump through all the hoops in this bill?”
Denise Clendenning blasted legislators for ignoring the will of the citizens of Delaware, accusing them of meeting virtually to silence the public.
“By the wording of these bills you have chosen to be tyrannical and to be threatening to all of us,” she said, promising that those who vote for gun control will pay come the next election.
Several speakers pledged not to comply if the bill passes. A few opponents already have said they will challenge the provisions in court if the measure becomes law.
Rep. Jeff Spiegelman, a Clayton Republican, pointed to language in the measure exempting concealed carry permitholders from the federal background check system, something he characterized as illegal under federal law.
By adding more costs to obtaining a handgun, lawmakers would make it harder for lower-income individuals to get guns, effectively preventing them from fully participating in society, Rep. Spiegelman said. Some of the same people trumpeting the proposal would “be screaming bloody murder about the denial of rights” were it a different subject, he said.
Several speakers accused the Department of Justice of not enforcing existing laws, such as by dropping most gun charges. Ms. Jennings’ office has rejected those claims, with the AG noting Tuesday that 85% to 90% of gun offenders are convicted and 75% of the state’s prison population is in jail because of violent crimes.
Arguments from supporters failed to sway the other side.
“I don’t expect logic and reason to prevail here today,” Mike Fritz testified in opposition to the bill.
Impassioned pleas from both backers and foes were on display Tuesday, clearly illustrating how charged the issue is.
Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker, a Wilmington Democrat who is the bill’s lead House sponsor, dismissed the idea politicians simply want to disarm the population.
“There are those who feel that more guns do not make us safe,” she told the committee.
The bill carries a cost of about $4.3 million in the first year, mostly to allow the State Bureau of Identification to hire more personnel needed to carry out the proposal.
While it remains to be seen if the legislation ends up as law, the two sides are dug in.
“Nothing will change if we change nothing, and few policies are as promising, indeed as proven, as urgently needed, in this state as permit-to-purchase,” Ms. Jennings said.