Delaware Senate passes two big gun-control measures

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DOVER — The Delaware Senate approved two gun-control bills Thursday after four hours of sometimes contentious debate that included a recess for technical difficulties.

By a 13-8 margin, senators sent to the House legislation that would require a permit to buy a handgun and would prohibit magazines capable of holding more than 17 rounds. Sen. Bruce Ennis, a Smyrna Democrat, joined the seven Senate Republicans in opposing the measures in what was otherwise a party-line vote.

The bills could be considered in a House committee as soon as April 20, the first day back after a two-week break.

Senate Bill 3 would mandate individuals seeking to buy a handgun first complete a training course. The person would then be able to submit an application to the Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security, which would issue a qualified-purchaser card within 30 days (as long as the applicant is eligible). Applicants would have to pay for training and a background check.

The bill places no limit on the number of firearms that can be purchased during the 180 days a qualified-purchaser card is valid.

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.

Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 6 would outlaw “large-capacity” magazines, creating a buyback program and giving Delaware gun owners until June 30, 2022, to sell their magazines to the state for $10 apiece.

If it becomes law, possession of a large-capacity magazine would be a class-B misdemeanor for a first offense and a class-E felony for any subsequent violation.

The bills, which come just a few weeks after mass shootings in Colorado and Georgia killed a combined 18 people, are designed to limit gun violence in the state, in particular large-scale shootings. They were filed last week and heard in committee Wednesday.

Similar versions of both proposals were introduced in 2019 but never made it to the chamber floor.

Thursday saw stark differences on display, as the two sides clashed over the bills’ constitutionality, impact and popularity.

“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 Majority Whip Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, a Wilmington Democrat who is the main sponsor of the permit-to-purchase measure, in a statement.

“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. 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.”

Supporters cited data indicating the federal ban on certain semi-automatic firearms and select magazines from 1994 to 2004 worked, as well as findings highlighting the decrease in gun homicides and suicides in Connecticut after it enacted a permit-to-purchase law and increases in the same categories in Missouri when it repealed its permit requirement.

A 2013 report from Johns Hopkins University referenced during the debate found permit-to-purchase laws result in a stark decline in “crime gun exports.”

“Magazines capable of feeding 30, 40, 50 or 100 rounds of ammunition into weapons are a common thread among mass shootings in the United States,” President Pro Tempore Dave Sokola, a Democrat from Newark who introduced the magazine bill, said during the debate.

“The 10 deadliest mass shootings of the last 10 years all involved large-capacity magazines. The reason is obvious: The more bullets one can fire, the more death and injury one can cause.”

But opponents pointed to their own statistics contradicting the majority’s facts, such as a 2019 analysis from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics that found 90% of federal inmates who possessed a gun during their offense did not get it from a “retail source.” A 2018 study from the RAND Corp., a think tank, concluded it’s unclear whether permit-to-purchase laws lower gun crimes, despite the Johns Hopkins research.

“We already have both federal- and state-level crimes against straw purchases,” Minority Leader Gerald Hocker, an Ocean View Republican, told colleagues. “In fact, we have literally dozens of laws concerning firearms, literally none of which affect criminal conduct and nearly all of which impact only law-abiding citizens who merely want to exercise their constitutional right to keep and bear arms in defense of self, family, home and state and for hunting and recreation.”

Republicans repeatedly challenged Democrats’ claims the bills will prevent violence, arguing they will do nothing to stop gun crimes, violate both the U.S. and Delaware constitutions and are unfair on several levels.

“There’s a stark contrast between the beliefs of our neighbors in 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,” Minority Whip Brian Pettyjohn, a Georgetown Republican, said.

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 firearms, while nine have restrictions on large-capacity magazines.

Sen. Sarah McBride, a Wilmington Democrat, noted polling released by the Delaware Coalition Against Gun Violence last week said 74% of Delawareans back a permit-to-purchase statute, including 69% of gun owners. She also pointed to the results of the 2018 and 2020 elections, which saw several Democrats running on gun-control platforms knock off powerful incumbents.

“I believe that Senate Bill 3 will save the lives of Delawareans. That’s why I support it,” she said. “But I also support it because I know how top-of-mind this issue of gun violence is for my neighbors in the 1st Senate District, and I am convinced that Delawareans, not just in my district but across our state, are far more united in support of gun-safety policies than the NRA would have us believe.”

Sen. Kyle Evans Gay, a Democrat from the Talleyville area, cited data that 92% of women and 98% of children killed by guns in high-income countries are in the United States, describing the bills as crucial tools to protect victims of domestic violence by making it harder for their abusers to get guns.

“This bill does not discriminate against women,” she said. “This is a permitting bill. This is a bill that ensures all individuals who can purchase a gun have demonstrated their responsibility and their capability to do so.”

Their arguments failed to convince opponents, however.

Sen. Dave Lawson, a Marydel Republican who’s no stranger to making controversial comments on the Senate floor, invoked the Nazis as a warning of what the bill could lead to. He went off on a tangent about government overreach and the “bastardization of marriage” before being directed to stick to the subject at hand.

“I don’t understand where this is coming from other than trying to get control,” he said. “We went after guns because of the kids. Well, that didn’t work. We found out that schools became safer. We didn’t worry about guns and kids.

“And I have a real problem with looking at it from a common-sense standpoint. You kill us in the womb, you kill us when we get infirmed or get old, and so what’s in the middle? I’m very, very concerned with where we’re headed here.

“Blue eyes and blonde hair going to be the preferred race by the time we’re done? Are we going to go backward to Hitler? Because here’s the problem. Hitler was legal in what he did, and it was because of legislation and legislators that paved the way for that.”

Before concluding, Sen. Lawson warned colleagues they risked waking up a “giant ... that I don’t think any of us want” if they continue passing legislation like the gun bills.

Although the gun control-Holocaust argument is a relatively common trope among gun-rights advocates, it is mostly rejected by historians and scholars. In a 2015 op-ed in The New York Times, University of Vermont professor Alan E. Steinweis, who specializes in the Third Reich and the Holocaust, described the claim as “strangely ahistorical, a classic instance of injecting an issue that is important in our place and time into a historical situation where it was not seen as important.”

While the Nazis did pass laws forbidding Jews from having guns a few years after they gained power, far more important to the Holocaust is the historical context: Germany’s economy was in shambles as a result of its defeat in World War I and the collapse of the German Empire, anti-Semitism had long been prevalent in much of Europe and many of the German people had a desire for a strong and fearless leader who would restore a once-great state.

Claims anti-gun laws were instrumental to the genocide that killed 6 million Jews and millions of other “undesirables” trivialize the Holocaust, Dr. Steinweis wrote.

Senators spent two-and-a-half hours on the permit-to-purchase measure and more than an hour on the magazine bill Thursday, although debate on the latter was delayed for about 45 minutes because of issues with the livestream.

One of the main objections to the magazine bill was the buyback program, specifically the fact many magazines cost several times the $10 allocated for each one.

“I do think there are broad implications from the takings perspective,” GOP attorney Anthony Delcollo said, referencing the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Democrats disagreed, with lawyers for the majority caucus testifying on the bills’ constitutionality.

Few proposals in recent years have generated more debate on a chamber floor than these two did. As a sign of the passion people have around gun control, a whopping 285 individuals signed up to speak in the committee hearing Wednesday, though only 41 were able to because of time constraints.

Gov. John Carney supports both bills.