In a 3-2 ruling, the state Supreme Court ruled late Thursday that two government agencies violated the Delaware Constitution by banning the possession of firearms in state forests and parks.
A bare majority of the state’s justices sided with gun-rights groups that argued decades-old policies of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and Department of Agriculture violated a 1987 amendment to the state constitution allowing Delaware citizens to keep and bear arms for self-defense outside of the home, as well as for hunting.
Writing for the majority, Justice Karen L. Valihura said that unelected officials at the two agencies lacked the power to enact the broad bans, which provided only a narrow exception for hunters who obtained permission to carry guns on the state lands.
“They lack such authority because they may not pass unconstitutional laws, and the regulations completely eviscerate a core right to keep and bear arms for defense of self and family outside the home—a right this court has already recognized,” Valihura wrote in a 46-page opinion, referring to the 2014 case Doe v. Wilmington Housing Authority. “As such, the regulations are unconstitutional on their face.”
The ruling scrapped a Superior Court judge’s determination last year that the regulations promoted the government’s goal of protecting its citizens in state parks and forests.
Valihura said that the high court’s ruling in Doe had rejected the “general safety concern” argument in favor of upholding similar regulations. The lower court’s ruling, she said, wrongly presumed that the ability to hunt was an adequate substitute for the core right to self-defense on the public lands.
Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr. joined Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. in a 94-page dissent that detailed the history of state and federal gun rights.
Strine, writing for the minority, said that the 1987 amendment was never meant to curtail the state’s ability to regulate firearm possession on its own land, and lawmakers had never introduced legislation to override a “durable, bipartisan, and sensible” consensus that the regulations were appropriate.
“In amending the Delaware Constitution to adopt Section 20, the General Assembly did not intend to create new rights, repeal existing firearm laws, or limit its power to manage its own land. Rather, as the legislative history shows, the General Assembly intended to protect the status quo as it existed in 1987,” Strine said.
Valihura was joined in the majority by Justices James T. Vaughn Jr. and Gary F. Traynor.
The case was captioned Bridgeville Rifle & Pistol Club v. Small.