A last-ditch effort to revive a bill to ban the sale of assault weapons in Delaware failed Tuesday in the state Senate, as two Democrats joined the chamber’s Republican caucus in rejecting a maneuver to bring the legislation up for debate.
Last week, Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Hawk’s Nest, said that he would support a bid to bring the bill to the floor for an up-or-down. However, supporters first needed 11 of the Senate’s 21 members to agree to suspend the rules in a chamber where Democrats hold just a one-seat edge over the Republican minority.
On Tuesday, Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, and fellow Democrat Sen. Bruce Ennis of Smyrna cast the decisive “no” votes, leaving supporters two votes short of the majority they needed to trigger debate. Two Republican senators were recorded as absent during the roll call.
The vote came as a stinging loss for the bill’s proponents, who said the measure was desperately needed to combat a rash of mass shootings that has gripped the country in recent years.
“This is a disservice to Delawareans on all sides of the legislation,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, said after the vote, which the Law Weekly monitored via a live audio stream posted to the General Assembly’s website.
Gov. John Carney, also a Democrat, had 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.
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 have organized demonstrations in Dover and on Tuesday filled the Senate gallery in anticipation of the vote. They argue that the measure would violate the Second Amendment right to bear arms, as well as a provision of the Delaware Constitution that protects the right to carry outside of the home.
Opponents applauded the bill’s defeat from their seats above the Senate floor, and audible groans could be heard when Townsend stood to speak, prompting a rebuke from Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long, who as the Senate president would have cast the tie-breaking vote in the event of a deadlock.
“I will have this chamber evacuated with all guests if we are not here in a professional forum,” she said.
Sen. Anthony Delcollo, R-Elsmere, said SB 163 would not have passed constitutional muster in light of recent decisions from the Delaware Supreme Court and federal appeals courts, and he decried the attempt to depart from the Senate’s normal order, which require that legislation receive a favorable committee vote before it can advance to the floor.
“Today, I believe our vote has supported the process,” he said.
Townsend has promised to reintroduce the measure when the next session of the General Assembly convenes in January.
This session, Carney has signed into law three gun-related bills measures, which aim to outlaw bump stocks, crack down on straw purchases and restrict access to weapons for people determined to be a threat to themselves or others.
A separate “red flag” bill—to allow family members and law enforcement to obtain a protection order from a court to remove firearms from people found to be a threat—also cleared the General Assembly on Tuesday and now goes to Carney’s desk for the governor’s signature.