A Delaware Superior Court judge on Thursday ruled that new regulations banning the open carry of firearms in lodges and camping areas of state parks and forests were unconstitutional in light of a state Supreme Court decision last year that struck a blanket prohibition against possessing guns on state lands.
Judge Jeffrey J. Clark sided with attorneys for the Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association, who argued that the regulations from the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and the Delaware Department of Agriculture violated a provision of the state constitution that allows Delaware citizens to keep and bear arms for self-defense outside of the home.
Francis G.X. Pileggi, who represented the organization, said that the regulations unlawfully prevented people without an open-carry permit from possessing guns in areas where they slept overnight with their families. Those area, he said, were analogous to “vacation homes” or other places where families make their home on a temporary basis.
Pileggi, who also chairs Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott commercial litigation practice, said he was still reviewing the decision, but claimed the ruling as a win for his client.
“I think at first glance we are viewing it as a victory on the major arguments we made,” Pileggi said in an interview.
The Delaware Department of Justice, which represented the DNREC and DDA, deferred comment to the state agencies, whose representatives did not immediately provide comment late Thursday afternoon.
The new regulations went into effect May 11, about five months after the Delaware Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision, ruled that a broad ban on guns at state parks and forests “completely eviscerate a core right to keep and bear arms for defense of self and family outside the home.”
Under the revised rules, concealed carry permit-holders and current and former law enforcement officials were allowed to carry guns in all areas of the parks and forests. Other visitors, however, were restricted from possessing firearms in places the agencies deemed to be “sensitive,” including lodges, offices, education centers, bath houses and public campgrounds.
The DSSA initially challenged the regulations pertaining to all of the designated areas, but later refined its argument to just lodges and campgrounds.
The DNREC and DDA said that the regulations promoted the government’s objective of ensuring the general safety of visitors on public lands. According to Clark’s opinion, the agencies said the designated areas made up less than 1 percent of all parks and forests, and guns were still permitted.
But Clark said that the regulations banned guns in the places where visitors spend most of their time, and the burden was on visitors was too substantial to survive a constitutional challenge.
“The effect of including camp sites within sensitive areas forces state park and forest visitors to give up their right to self-defense in order to camp overnight in those areas,” he wrote in a 38-page opinion. “the right for self-protection, as recognized by the Delaware Supreme Court, is unduly burdened when an overnight guest is banned from possessing his or her firearm while camping overnight in a state park.”
Clark also struck regulations allowing law enforcement to conduct automatic background checks and inspect permits as facially unconstitutional under the Fourth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Other rules that did not raise constitutional concerns were allowed to remain in place.
The case was captioned Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association v. Garvin.