The Delaware General Assembly in 2018 succeeded in passing a number of gun-safety bills and moved one step closer to passing the state’s first Equal Rights Amendment. However, the year was marked by dramatic and stinging losses for other major progressive causes.
Lawmakers passed a series of gun-related bills 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. However, the session’s big-ticket gun legislation—a statewide ban on assault-style weapons—died without a vote in the Senate, despite a last-second attempt to bring the measure to the floor.
The legislation, SB 163, identified 45 types of “assault long guns” and other weapons that would no longer be approved for manufacture, sale and transport in the First State. The bill was modeled after a law in Maryland, which withstood a constitutional challenge from gun-rights advocates in 2017.
But Delaware’s bill failed to clear a key committee hurdle in the Senate, dealing a blow to Gov. John Carney and Democrats who had made an assault-weapons ban the centerpiece of a legislative package to address gun violence after a lone gunman killed 17 students at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School in February.
Some Democrats later launched a campaign to suspend the chamber’s rules in order to forgo the standard process and bring the bill to an up-or-down vote. After a heated debate, two Democrats joined all Senate Republicans in rejecting the Hail-Mary maneuver.
A yearslong legislative effort to end Delaware’s cash-bail system met a similar end in the session’s last days, when the Senate fell three votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to amend the state’s Constitution.
Senate Bill 221, sponsored by Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, would have amended the state Constitution to expand the range of violent crimes for which pretrial release was unavailable. It had been coupled with a related measure, SB 222, which sought to create the presumption that most defendants will be released before trial with nonmonetary conditions.
Both bills were introduced in 2018 as part of a legislative package that would have moved Delaware toward the ultimate goal of eliminating its cash bail system. After the first vote failed, leaders removed SB 222 from the agenda, capping what was seen as a brutal setback for the bail-reform push.
In Delaware, constitutional amendments must clear two consecutive legislatures by a two-thirds majority, meaning that the changes proposed this session could not go into effect until 2021, at the earliest.
Supporters expect to bring both the assault-style weapons ban and bail-reform bills back in 2019 after a midterm election expanded Democrats’ majority in the chamber to 12-9. However, both issues have exposed rifts in the party, and it is not clear whether either measure will pass in the next General Assembly.
Lawmakers in 2018 did, however, move one step closer to approving a state Equal Rights Amendment, which bars public- and private-sector discrimination “on account of sex.” Lawmakers have already introduced the identical second leg of the legislation, which is expected to pass easily in both chambers after the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
A federal ERA was passed by Congress in 1972 but failed to be ratified to the state. Delaware was the third state to approve the federal ERA in March 1972.
The state ERA is similar to the federal measure, but unlike the federal ERA, its scope is not limited to just the public sector, and could have an impact on private employers, attorneys have said.
The 150th General Assembly is scheduled to return Jan. 8.