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New gun laws for parks draw debate

Hearing on proposed regulations set March 12 in Dover
March 6, 2018

Proposed regulations allowing visitors to carry firearms in most areas of Delaware's state parks, state wildlife areas and state forests drew mixed reviews at a recent workshop.

Jeff Passwaters, a Greenwood resident who has a concealed weapons permit, said he liked the idea that active-duty and qualified retired law enforcement officers and concealed carry permit holders would be allowed to carry their guns anywhere in those areas.

Concealed weapons permit holders should be practicing and training, just in case that trigger has to be pulled, Passwaters said. "I sure do," he said.

The Feb. 22 workshop at Sussex Central High School was the third over several weeks after the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and the Delaware Department of Agriculture announced proposed regulation changes Jan. 19. The new regulations allow open carrying of guns in places like trails, unguarded beaches, parking lots, and vehicles. While open carry is legal in Delaware, state parks and forests previously prohibited visitors from carrying their weapons.

Ray Bivens, Delaware State Parks director, said the proposed changes would maintain restrictions in about 2 percent of state parks, wildlife areas and forests. In some areas, like Redden State Forest, he said, the percentage is much lower.

A map of Redden State Forest at the public workshop showed 0.08 percent of the forest's 10,600 acres would be restricted areas, such as educational facilities and dormitories, recreational facilities, the water park at Killen's Pond and the bathhouses.

The proposed regulations prohibit firearms only in certain public facilities and designated areas such as park offices, visitor centers, nature centers, bathhouses, stadiums and facilities while used for events, museums, zoos, stables, educational facilities, dormitories, playgrounds, camping areas, swimming pools, guarded beaches and water parks. Proposed regulations call for these designated areas to be identified by appropriate signage.

Not everyone at the sparsely attended workshop was in favor of the proposed regulations.

In response to comment about the right of gun owners to protect themselves, Delaware Surf Fishing's Rich King questioned if there had ever been a gun used while committing a crime in one of the state parks or forests.

Most people going to the parks are going for fun, he said, shaking his head in disbelief.

Following a brief presentation at the beginning of the workshop, Chief Wayne Kline, DNREC Delaware State Parks Natural Resources Police, said there have been very few incidents over the years involving guns. He said he doesn't anticipate an upswell. "It's going to be a work in progress, but the parks are very safe," Kline said.

A public hearing on the proposed regulations is scheduled for 6 p.m., Monday, March 12, in DNREC's Richardson & Robbins Auditorium, 89 Kings Highway, Dover.

Landing standing legal battle

The interim regulations are the latest in a legal battle that has now stretched out for years.

The original lawsuit, filed December 2015 by the Bridgeville Rifle & Pistol Club in Chancery Court, argued state regulations banning firearms in state parks and forests violate the Delaware Constitution and the right to bear arms. Months later, in June 2016, the court denied a request to remove the gun ban and dismissed the case.

Shortly afterward, the complainants refiled the lawsuit in Superior Court, which again sided with state agencies in a December 2016 decision. The following month, January 2017, the complainants appealed to Delaware Supreme Court, which issued a ruling ending the firearm ban Dec. 7.

In response to the Supreme Court ruling, DNREC Secretary Sean Garvin and DDA Secretary Michael Scuse issued temporary regulations Dec. 27 that expanded possession of firearms. The state has a deadline of June 24 to finalize the proposed regulations before the temporary ones expire.