A legislative proposal to ban assault weapons in Delaware failed this week in the state Senate, a blow to Gov. John Carney and Democrats who had pushed the reforms in the wake of a school shooting that killed 17 people in Florida earlier this year.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday voted not to release SB 163 for consideration before the full chamber, amid pressure from opponents who argued the bill violated the Delaware Constitution and the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
The failure to bring the session’s most controversial gun-control measure to a floor vote came as a stinging loss for gun-control supporters, who said the measure was desperately needed to combat a rash of mass shootings that has gripped the country in recent years.
Carney announced the bill in March, invoking the Feb. 14 tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 59 concertgoers in October. In both cases, lone gunmen used legally purchased semiautomatic rifles to carry out the massacres.
“This is important legislation that will make our state safer—and I urge members of the General Assembly in both parties to act quickly and send this bill to my desk as soon as possible,” the governor said in a statement at the time.
But with just weeks to go in the legislative session, Sen. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, announced that he would not support the measure, giving opponents the three committee votes they needed to prevent it from advancing to the Senate floor.
In a statement, Carney said he was “extremely disappointed that the full Delaware Senate will not get a chance to vote on Senate Bill 163.”
Modeled after a similar ban in Maryland, SB 163 identified a range of “assault long guns” and other weapons that would no longer be approved for manufacture, sale and transport in the First State.
The bill’s synopsis noted that Maryland’s law, passed in 2013, was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in a ruling that applied U.S. Supreme Court precedent that found the Second Amendment did not apply to guns deemed to be “exceptionally lethal weapons of war.” The Supreme Court in November denied an appeal by gun dealers and the Maryland branch of the National Rifle Association, who had challenged the law in federal court.
Delaware’s bill listed 45 types of long guns—including the AR-15 and AK-47—that would be outlawed, along with certain assault pistols and “copycat” weapons. The measure did not include firearms that were legally purchased before the legislation was set to go into effect, though those guns would have been subject to tighter restrictions after the bill’s effective date.
The proposal sparked intense opposition from gun rights advocates, who demonstrated in front of Legislative Hall and packed the Senate chambers for the Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday.
Francis G.X. Pileggi, an attorney with Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott in Wilmington, was among those to testify before the panel on behalf of the Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association, the state branch of the NRA. In an interview, he disputed the supporters’ reliance on federal court rulings, and said the bill likely would not withstand a legal challenge under a provision of the Delaware Constitution that protects the right to carry guns outside of the home.
Pileggi, who has successfully argued the only two state Supreme Court cases to address Article I Section 20 of the Delaware Constitution, said the First State offers more protections than those offered under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ensuring the right to carry ”for the defense of self, family, home and State, and for hunting and recreational use.”
“That should be the beginning of any analysis,” he said.
Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, the bill’s primary sponsor in the Senate, however, challenged that interpretation. Section 20, he said, doesn’t offer broader protections, but more specific ones, and recent Delaware cases simply addressed the right to bear arms in certain places.
Townsend instead focused on four U.S. appeals court rulings—including the decision from the Fourth Circuit—that held that the U.S. Constitution allows for the banning of certain semiautomatic guns.
“I am extremely confident that the Delaware Supreme Court would apply the same kind of analysis that the federal courts did,” he said in an interview.
Townsend said that Wednesday’s action likely means that SB 163 would not return before the legislative session ends on June 30, but he vowed to reintroduce the bill next year.
Lawmakers have, however, found common ground on other measure aimed at fighting gun violence. In April, Carney signed into law the Beau Biden Gun Violence Prevention Act, which restricts access to firearms for people mental health professionals have determined present a danger to themselves or others. The law was named for Beau Biden, the former attorney general who championed similar legislation before his death in 2015.
The Delaware House of Representatives has unanimously approved a separate “red flag” bill that would allow family members and law enforcement to obtain a protection order from a court to remove firearms from people found to be a danger to themselves or others. That measure still needs full Senate approval before it can be sent to Carney for his signature.
Legislation to ban bump stocks is also nearing final passage in the waning weeks of the session, after the Senate made another round of changes to the bill earlier this week. The House, which has already passed earlier versions of the measure, would need to sign off on those amendments in order for the measure to clear the General Assembly.
Bump stocks, which allow a semiautomatic rifle to fire more like a machine gun, were used by Stephen Paddock, the shooter who earlier this year opened fire at a country music festival on the Las Vegas strip.