The first in a series of proposals to strengthen Delaware’s gun-control laws would force owners to report lost or stolen firearms. The bill is intended to target straw purchases, when a person buys a gun and then gives or sells it to someone who could not legally acquire one.
Gov. Jack Markell unveiled the bill Feb. 20, alongside Lt. Gov. Matt Denn and Attorney General Beau Biden. Delaware State Police, legislators and members of Delaware Coalition Against Gun Violence also attended the event at State Police Troop 2 in Newark.
The bill is one of five gun control proposals Markell, Denn and Biden initially announced Jan. 14, one month after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
The proposed legislation would require gun owners to report the loss or theft of a firearm to police within 48 hours of discovering the firearm is missing. Owners may report the loss or theft to local police departments or any Delaware State Police Troop. Violators would be subject to a fine of $100 to $500 for a first offense. Second and subsequent offenses would be considered felonies.
Markell said guns that are stolen or lost frequently wind up being used to commit crimes. “If we’re serious about keeping guns out of the wrong hands, we need to do a better job of accounting for these weapons,” he said.
Biden said the proposal would help keep guns out of the hands of criminals. "All too often prosecutors in my office are confronted with defendants who claim their weapon was lost or stolen, when in reality that gun was purchased and then immediately handed over to a criminal who is not legally allowed to have a gun,” he said.
Department of Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Lewis Schiliro said after the event the law would come into play after a crime was committed. He said it normally takes police 48 hours to trace a weapon after it is recovered from a crime scene.
“Once the person that originally purchased the gun is confronted, we’ll already have had the gun for two days,” Schiliro said. “They could say, ‘I didn’t know it was stolen,’ but that could be hard to prove.”
The prime sponsors of the bill are Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington East, and Rep. Michael Barbieri, D-Newark. Other sponsors include Democratic senators and representatives from Kent and New Castles counties. No Republican legislators or legislators from Sussex County have yet signed on to the bill.
Rep. Steve Smyk, R-Milton, a former state trooper, said it is only a matter of time before criminals learn to skirt the law. “This is superfluous legislation,” he said. Smyk said a law-abiding citizen would report a stolen firearm without the law. “They’re trying to target that straw purchase,” he said.
“It’ll be within about a year or two that those who would be targeted in this legislation will learn what to say,” Smyk said. “They’re going to say, ‘Oh well, I didn’t know it was stolen.’ And you can’t prosecute that.”
Smyk said officials should focus on improving the state’s mental health industry, which, he said, has been crippled over the years. He also said the Republican caucus is working to craft legislation to improve school and public building safety.
Smyk said when Biden and Markell presented the gun-control proposal to the minority caucus, he told them the bill was flawed.
“The governor and the AG have grabbed the football on this, and they’re not letting anyone else play,” Smyk said.
The bill is expected to be introduced in the House after the General Assembly reconvenes, Tuesday, March 12. In the coming legislation session, Markell, Denn and Biden are also expected to introduce separate bills to require background checks for the private sale of firearms; ban the sale, manufacture, delivery and unlawful possession of large-capacity magazines and military-style weapons; and ban possession of a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school.