Why aren't gun control laws in Delaware going anywhere? It depends on who you ask
Gun control efforts appear to be dead in Delaware this year after stricter gun laws stalled in Dover.
The Democrat-ruled Senate Executive Committee, a six-person group, would not send the three gun control bills — a proposed assault weapons ban, high-capacity magazine ban and permit-to-purchase mandate — to floor vote.
This means that the majority of senators won’t get a chance to officially show where they stand on some of the most debated policies of the session.
Since last week, lawmakers and advocates have disagreed over whether that decision reflects what the majority of people in Delaware want.
Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Hawks Nest, who chairs the committee, said in a statement Monday that Senate support for those bills is "almost nonexistent."
Since then, gun control supporters have cried foul.
"That bothered me because it did have support," said Sen. Laura Sturgeon, D-Brandywine West, whose permit-to-purchase legislation was among the stalled bills. "All three bills had support."
McBride argues that there were only a handful of Democratic senators who would have voted for the current versions of the bills. He suggested to a group of reporters on Tuesday that any immediate debate on the floor would be unproductive.
Gun control advocates and some lawmakers criticized the decision. Many expressed frustration over the hearing on the bills last week, during which not all attendees had the chance to speak and some bill sponsors were unprepared for questioning.
Supporters of the bills argue that the Democratic turnout in the November elections, which resulted in electing several pro-gun control lawmakers, shows an appetite for stricter gun control in the state. Democrats currently have their largest majority in the General Assembly in more than a decade.
But the conversation, unlike the legislation, hasn't stopped. Gun control and gun rights lobbyists are still frequenting the Capitol, and some lawmakers are now working on amending the legislation to make it more palatable to certain gun owners.
It's unclear whether senators will introduce similar bills next session, as they have in years prior. It’s also unclear what any amendments would look like. Many involved in the lawmaking process admit they don't know what's next, though the proposals aren't likely to come back up this year.
"Although I remain committed to them, I am now shifting my legislative focus to different matters, including health care reform," said Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, who sponsored the proposed assault weapons ban.
Now that these versions of the bills are stalled, some hope advocates will be pushed further to find common ground.
But it's unclear exactly what about the bills need to change. Some gun rights advocates say legislators should instead focus on tackling other issues they think contribute to gun violence, such as first-person shooter video games.
McBride has said that proponents first need to know more about the effectiveness and constitutionality of the proposed laws.
Sturgeon has plans to reintroduce the bill next session.
"I've always been willing to change it," Sturgeon said. "I'm hoping there's a compromise bill out there."
The freshman lawmaker also said it could be more effective to introduce a "robust" version of her permit bill, instead of the three bills that were introduced together earlier this year.
"If we had a robust permitting system, we wouldn't need the other bills," she said.
Sturgeon believes the majority of her constituency wants her gun control bill, and guesses that some of the more wary Senate Democrats have more divided districts.
"I think they were trying their best to reflect what they believe their constituents want," Sturgeon said. "Or they believe their constituents are so divided ... they don't feel comfortable moving forward with such controversial legislation."
She added that the protesters who have frequented the Capitol since the bills were first introduced were "powerful," but was disappointed that some lawmakers were not influenced by results of recent public polling.
"I think they were swayed by the numbers of people who were showing up and were sending emails," she said.
Proponents have also continuously cited a poll conducted by SurveyUSA on behalf of Everytown for Gun Safety, which indicates that the majority of Delaware residents support the measures.
Opponents argue the poll is an inaccurate representation of gun owners in the state.
McBride said he did not see the poll, but indicated it wouldn't change his mind if he did.
Paul Brewer, research director at the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication, said the poll is in line with a national trend — especially since Delaware leans left compared to other states.
But that doesn't mean he's surprised that the gun control bills aren't sailing through the lawmaking process.
"Public policy and public opinion are out of sync," Brewer said. "Historically, gun rights supporters are a very mobilized minority opinion."
Brewer added that Democrats only outnumber Republicans by a handful of Senate seats, and some districts are more conservative than others.
"All you need is a few lukewarm Democrats, and nothing goes anywhere," he said.
Among the lukewarm was Sen. Nicole Poore, D-New Castle, who also sits on the committee that did not release the measures. She said she generally supports the bills, but that they need to be amended.
"There's a lot of unanswered questions," Poore said. "These are not bills that you can just rush through."
Sen. David Sokola, D-Newark, who sponsored the third stalled bill that would have capped magazines at 15 rounds, could not be reached for comment.
There is another gun bill on the table, which has already earned support from both chambers. The bill by Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover West, would further restrict how residents can store their guns. The sponsor is still pushing for passage, but remains opposed to an amendment that was tacked on in the Senate.
More bills could be on their way, including some that are supported by Gov. John Carney.
But it's unclear how far any new bills would go this year following last week's decision.
Asked about how much support he thinks the bills have in the state beyond the 21-person Senate, McBride said: "I'm more focused on where legislators are."
Others say there is support.
"Our constituents want these bills," Sturgeon said. "I have to keep going."
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