Stricter gun laws sought in Delaware. Here's what could change

Sarah Gamard
Delaware News Journal

Delaware Democrats are pushing to cap the capacity of magazines and require a permit to buy a handgun — two bills that are sure to stir controversy as the call for gun control grows louder in the wake of two mass shootings in the U.S. this month.

Voters replaced moderate Democrats and Republicans with several new progressives in the General Assembly, strengthening the majority party's hold on the Statehouse and ensuring that the proposals have a better chance of passing than last session when similar, more aggressive bills failed.

But more people bought guns in Delaware this past year than ever in recorded history, which could pose a challenge for Democrats depending on how the growing population of gun owners feels about the restrictions.

Backers of the bills say they would help prevent gun violence, including suicides. Gov. John Carney supports the bills, which are scheduled for their first hearing on Wednesday.

The measures were announced on Thursday, two days after Delaware's favorite son President Joe Biden called on Congress to "immediately pass" new gun restrictions following mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado, that killed eight people and 10 people, respectively.

In Delaware, Democrats tried to pass new gun control laws, as well as a bill to ban certain semiautomatic weapons, in 2019. They failed after the former Senate leader blocked the bills from a floor vote.

Advocates, though, are hoping for different results two years later, while opponents are sure to rally again to block new gun laws.

An online, grassroots gun rights movement called Delaware Gun Rights credited itself for the 2019 bills' failure after it lassoed in union members and threatened Democratic campaign cash ahead of the 2020 elections.

That same strategy may not work now because several of those moderates who depended on that money were voted out in November.

They've been replaced by younger, more progressive Democrats who have expressed support for gun control. The new Senate leader, David Sokola, is championing this year's magazine cap bill, for example.

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What guns laws may change in Delaware

Delaware Democrats are pushing to cap magazines and require a permit to buy a handgun.

After the 2019 bills failed, the sponsors vowed to push for their bills again in 2020, but that promise was not kept once COVID-19 arrived in Delaware and upended lawmakers' schedules.

Earlier this month, Democrats introduced another gun control bill that would ban homemade guns, otherwise known as "ghost guns" because they don't have serial numbers or other identifying markings that let them be tracked by the seller or law enforcement.

The bill cleared its first committee hearing earlier this month. Lawmakers introduced a similar bill last year, but it didn't pass both chambers before the pandemic hit.

The bills also come as people are buying a record number of guns, evidenced by a surge in background checks. 

Delaware had more background checks for gun sales in 2020 — a little more than 77,000 — than any year on record, according to FBI data.

Last March, about 8,120 background checks were conducted in Delaware — the highest in one month since the FBI began tracking the data in 1998.

That record was broken again in June following police brutality protests — some of which were violent — in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis.

That month, a little more than 8,200 background checks were conducted in Delaware.

The surge has appeared to slow since then, but sales are still above average, the data showed.

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Same gun control fight, new challenges

Gun rights advocates are still working to block the bills, but are not able to use their previous strategy of mobilizing hundreds of people to Legislative Hall in Dover to protest the measures while lawmakers work inside the building.

The General Assembly is still meeting over Zoom, and opponents of the bills have so far resorted to emailing their representatives asking them to vote down the measures.

They plan on swarming the virtual committee hearings, but those hearings put a limit on how long each member of the public can speak for or against a bill.

Even the leader of Delaware Gun Rights, Mitch Denham, expects at least some of the bills to pass and is already planning to sue the state once they do.

They plan to argue that the policies are unconstitutional, he said.

Gun rights advocates argue that restricting gun access affects only people who follow the law and not criminals.

"I completely agree that we need to do what we can to save lives and stop shootings, but I don't think that these measures are going to solve anything," Denham said. "All you did was create a victim."

A recent statewide survey from the Delaware Coalition Against Gun Violence, which supports gun control, found that more than 2 in 3 Delawareans support the permit-to-purchase proposal.

"There's a vocal minority that comes out to oppose any kind of reasonable restrictions," said Traci Manza Murphy, the executive director of the coalition. "People in Delaware overwhelmingly support this policy (permit to purchase)."

Senate Majority Leader Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, sponsored the 2019 weapons ban. He did not immediately respond to an inquiry from Delaware Online/The News Journal on whether he will reintroduce it this year.

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About the gun bills in Delaware

Legislative Hall in Dover has been closed to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawmakers have held the legislative session over Zoom.

More training:

Senate Bill 3 sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Tizzy Lockman, D-Wilmington, would require training and a permit in order to buy a handgun.

Concealed carry permit holders would not have to complete the training course because they already completed one for concealed carry. The permit would only last for 180 days and does not limit how many handguns can be purchased.

The permit requirement wouldn't apply to long guns. When asked why, a Senate spokesman pointed to how most gun-related crimes in Delaware involve handguns. 

Three-fourths of the state's 1,000-plus recovered weapons in 2019 traced by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were handguns.

Magazine limit:

Senate Bill 6 sponsored by Sokola, D-Newark, would ban magazines that can hold more than 17 rounds of ammo. The state would have an optional buyback program, giving $10 for each magazine.

The previous magazine bill would have capped magazines at 15 rounds instead of 17, but lawmakers eased the limit to accommodate for the popular 9mm Glock 17, according to a Senate Democrat spokesman.

Homemade guns:

House Bill 125 by House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, would ban owning or making homemade guns, also known as "ghost guns."

It includes guns that cannot be caught by metal detectors because they are made from non-metal parts and guns that cannot be traced by law enforcement because they do not have a serial number.

The guns can be built from kits or a 3D printer, and buyers can circumvent background check laws by purchasing parts and assembling their own weapons, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

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This report includes information from USA TODAY.

Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. Reach her at (302) 324-2281 or sgamard@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.