Anyone seeking to purchase a gun in Delaware – even in a private sale – would be required to undergo a background check, according to a new gun-control measure proposed by Gov. Jack Markell.
In a show of bipartisanship, former Delaware Governor and Congressman Mike Castle, a Republican, joined Democrats Markell, Lt. Gov. Matt Denn and Attorney General Beau Biden to unveil the latest in a series of bills intended to reduce gun violence in the state.
The latest proposal would require background checks for the private sale of all firearms. Background checks would be performed by licensed dealers, who could charge up to $50 for the service. Dealers would be required to maintain records of all background checks in accordance with state and federal law.
“Under existing law, when a licensed dealer sells a firearm, he or she must perform a background check on the potential buyer. But when the sale does not involve a licensed dealer, no background check is required,” Markell said. Currently, dealers can charge only $20 for a background check requested by a private party.
The bill includes exceptions for sales or transfers of firearms involving immediate family members, law enforcement officers, antique firearms and some antique replicas and the return of a firearm by a pawnbroker to the person from whom it was received.
If the law passes, a first offense would be considered a misdemeanor crime; subsequent offenses would be felonies.
Castle, who sponsored the 2009 Bipartisan Gun Show Loophole Closing Act in Congress, said he supported the measure, which would ensure people who are prohibited cannot buy a gun. “This is a common-sense measure that can save lives,” Castle said.
Biden also said the bill was a common-sense approach to gun control, and background checks are a proven way to keep guns away from criminals.
Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Lewis Schiliro, and the bill’s sponsors, House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, and Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington North, also attended the March 6 event at the Carvel State Building in Wilmington.
Longhurst sponsored legislation in 2011 to sync Delaware’s background check system with the federal database for firearm purchases. She said there is a significant loophole in Delaware’s current system.
“In just the last six years, close to 3,500 people were denied firearms because they failed a background check at a gun store. Unless we establish universal background checks, those same people can just go to a gun show or another private gun seller to buy a firearm,” Longhurst said.
The bill is one in a series of gun-control proposals Markell unveiled Jan. 14 – one month after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 children and six school employees dead.
A bill unveiled Feb. 20 would force gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms. That 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.
Other proposals expected to be introduced this legislative session include a ban on the sale, manufacture, delivery and unlawful possession of large-capacity magazines and military-style weapons and a bill to prevent possession of a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school.
Critics of the administration say the proposals are aimed at law-abiding citizens; they say the laws would do little to prohibit criminals from obtaining guns.
Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association Board Member Jeffrey Hague and Public Information Officer Thomas D. Shellenberger said they met with staffers of Markell and Biden, Feb. 25.
In a press release, the association said state officials were unwilling to consider input from the DSSA, and the meeting was just for show. “When the governor and the attorney general are ready to talk about measures that will truly impact school safety, such as increasing police presence in schools, enhancing penalties for using firearms in crime and ending plea bargains for repeat offenders, the Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association is ready to listen and assist,” DSSA representatives said.
“By definition, criminals do not obey the law,” the release stated. “Consequently, passing gun bans, magazine bans and restrictions on lawful sales and possession of firearms means nothing to criminals, who do not obtain or possess their firearms legally.”
At the latest unveiling, Denn said, “Everyone who says we should be focused on dangerous people should be for this bill because that's exactly what it does.”
"Everyone who says we should do a better job of enforcing existing laws should be for this bill because that's exactly what it does – allows us to ensure that the people who we have legally prohibited from owning guns don't in fact get them,” Denn said.
Republican bill would reinstate Delaware background checks
Sen. Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, announced March 6 he would introduce a bill to re-establish state background checks for gun buyers.
In July 2011, Markell signed House Bill 48, which required the state to provide certain information to the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System about people prohibited from possessing firearms, such as the mentally ill. The bill also abolished the state's existing firearm transaction program, which included backgrounds checks, calling it duplicative.
Hocker, who said he has been a licensed gun dealer for 40 years, said he often saw the State Bureau of Identification deny a person's ability to purchase a gun, when the federal government did not.
"Even though it’s an added expense and takes some extra time and paperwork, having the two background checks is worth it," Hocker said. "You just can't be too safe right now."
The bills are expected to be introduced in the House after the General Assembly reconvenes, Tuesday, March 12.