Delaware lawmakers this week are returning to a full slate of gun control legislation, including a proposal from Gov. John Carney to ban the sale of high-power rifles in the wake of last month’s mass shooting at a Florida high school.
The House of Representatives on Thursday voted to advance separate bipartisan bills to ban bump stocks and crack down on “straw purchases,” while several other measures await votes in House committees.
But a more sprawling overhaul of the state’s gun laws could still be on the horizon.
Carney, a Democrat, last month floated a measure that would prohibit sales of “assault-style” rifles that have been used by mass shooters in a rash of recent tragedies.
“In the coming weeks, my team will work closely with lawmakers to craft legislation that would prohibit the sale of assault-style rifles in Delaware. As we have seen in Las Vegas, Parkland, and in many other horrific incidents across our country, military-style weapons can be used to carry out catastrophic acts of violence. They have no place on the streets of our neighborhoods,” Carney said in a statement Feb. 23.
Carney’s remarks came just nine days after a 19-year-old gunman killed 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, using an AR-15 rifle that he purchased legally from a gun shop. The attack has since sparked a national debate about guns that has extended to state lawmakers, who have grappled with how best to prevent mass shootings in the future.
In recent years, Delaware has passed legislation to expand background checks and cut down on gun purchases by individuals who are legally prohibited from possessing firearms. But Carney said in his statement that more still needed to be done.
“We need a national approach to this mortal threat to our safety. We stand ready to do our part here in Delaware, and I would urge President [Donald] Trump and members of Congress to do the same at the national level. It’s past time to take serious action to confront this threat,” he said.
However, it is not yet clear how Carney and lawmakers would define “assault-style” rifles in the forthcoming legislation. A spokesman for Carney did not respond this week to a request for comment.
Speaker of the House Rep. Peter C. Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, who said he had spoken with Carney about the proposal on Tuesday, said the governor was considering a bill similar to Maryland’s 2013 assault weapons ban, which was deemed constitutional by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit last February.
Maryland’s ban outlaws “assault long guns,” including the AR-15 and AK-47, as well as high-capacity magazines, which allow for rapid firing and require little reloading. The U.S. Supreme Court in November denied an appeal by gun dealers and the state branch of the National Rifle Association, who had argued that the prohibition violates the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“I told him, ‘Copy that as much as you can,’” Schwartzkopf said.
Carney plans to see legislation introduced in the Senate this session, Schwartzkopf said.
Carney has also expressed his support for the bill from Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, to ban bump stocks, an accessory that can accelerate the rate of fire for a semiautomatic weapon to make it fire more like a machine gun.
Introduced after a gunman used the device to kill 59 concertgoers in Las Vegas, the legislation cleared the House by a vote of 25-3 on Thursday, with 11 members not voting.
The House also voted to approve a measure from Rep. Larry Mitchell, D-Elsmere, to increase the penalty for “straw purchases,” or gun sales made to persons prohibited from possessing firearms. Under Mitchell’s bill, the first offense would be raised from a Class F to a Class E felony.
Both measures now move to the Senate for consideration.
Another Carney-backed bill, HB 302, would establish a system to keep firearms out of the hands of people who mental health professionals deem a threat to themselves or others. Under the so-called “red-flag bill,” introduced by Rep. David Bentz, D-Newark, the Delaware Department of Justice would be able to petition the Superior Court for an order requiring an individual to turn over their weapons to law enforcement.
Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn has said he supports the measure, which has been named after the late former state Attorney General Beau Biden. However, the bill has so far failed to gain traction with Republicans, some of whom have signed on to a more limited version of the legislation in the House.
Schwartzkopf is also pushing his own legislation to raise the minimum age to purchase guns and ammunition from 18 to 21.
That bill has faced pushback from Republicans, but an amendment filed Tuesday would exempt active-duty members of the military and law enforcement. Schwartzkopf also said he would introduce an additional carve-out for shotguns and muzzleloaders, which don’t have the range or rapid-fire capability of other long guns.
Meanwhile, Republicans, who are the minority in the General Assembly, prefer legislation to improve security at public schools, including a bipartisan bill to require schools to install bulletproof glass and intruder alarms. Another Republican measure would establish a ”Delaware School Safety and Security Fund,” which would allow schools to compete for grants to address unresolved security concerns.
Some measures could still be taken up as early as this week.