A surge of Delaware citizens flooded the House Chambers of Legislative Hall in Dover to testify about a bill that would expand background checks for firearm purchases, prompting the House Judiciary Committee to table the bill because of time constraints.
The floor of the chamber was filled to capacity for the March 13 hearing, and many people were instructed to sit in the second-floor balcony. A half hour after the hearing was scheduled to begin, a man shouted down from the balcony, "Hey, what the hell's going on here? Isn't it time we got started?"
About 15 minutes later, House Judiciary Chairwoman Rep. Rebecca Walker, D-Middletown, instructed the bill's primary sponsor, Rep. Valerie Longhurst, to summarize the bill.
House Bill 35 is part of Gov. Jack Markell's package of gun-control control measures, announced in January. Background checks are already required when a licensed dealer sells a gun and when a private party asks a dealer to perform a background check.
The bill would make background checks mandatory for the private sale or transfer of firearms, and gun dealers could charge up to $50 to perform the check.
HB 35 includes exceptions for gun sales between immediate family members and law enforcement officers, among others.
Longhurst, D-Bear, said the measure would undergo three amendments before it is brought to the House floor. Andy Lippstone, Markell’s chief legal counsel, said the amendments would include an exemption for people who cannot obtain photo identification, such as the Amish.
"It's not a universal background check bill, but it's pretty close," Lippstone said.
Members of the committee were the first to criticize the bill. Rep. Jeff Spiegelman, R-Clayton, said the bill was redundant of Delaware's existing law. "This bill just makes something that's already illegal further illegal," he said. "The fact is criminals don't follow the law."
"It's not redundant at all," Lippstone said.
Lippstone said every firearm starts out as a legal firearm – it is manufactured and sold by a licensed dealer. But after the first buyer, it is easy to lose track of the weapon because it can be sold privately. He said, over time, the bill would make fewer weapons available to criminals.
When Spiegelman asked Lippstone if the bill’s goal was to better track firearms, Lippstone said, "Absolutely not."
A member of the National Rifle Association was one of the first people to testify on the bill, but shortly after he began, Rep. John Atkins, D-Millsboro, approached the bench and spoke to Walker. Their conversation could not be heard on the floor, but Atkins stepped down from the bench, slammed something onto his desk and walked out of the chamber.
Of the nine people called to testify, only one spoke in favor of the bill. Emily Knearl of Delaware Coalition Against Gun Violence said the bill makes Delaware a safer state. "Most gun owners are good people," she said. But, she said, it takes very few people to cause gun violence.
Knearl noted 80 percent to 90 percent of Americans support background checks in all cases of firearm sales.
Others who testified said the bill does nothing to keep guns away from criminals.
Fred Cullis of Hockessin testified his daughter, now 23, has been a competitive trap-shooter since she was 13. As she grew older, she needed different-sized guns and often bought them privately instead of paying more at a gun store, he said. "It's a law that penalizes the good guys and does not catch the bad guys," he said.
Mark Hester, a retired Dover police officer, said the bill would do little to prevent crime. "It's not going to stop criminals dealing guns to other criminals," he said.
Anthony Delcollo, of the Delaware Association of Second Amendment Lawyers, said keeping records of law-abiding citizens is unconstitutional, and the bill subjects private citizens to investigation without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. Audience members applauded Delcollo’s testimony.
Robert Miller, owner of Miller’s Gun Center in New Castle, sat next to Lippstone and Longhurst. He said dealers keep failed background checks for five years, and dealers undergo annual inspections from Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Miller said whatever happens with the denials is left to ATF.
John Sigler, president of the Delaware Republican Committee, testified the $50 fee to perform background checks – which can cost no more than $20 under current law – discriminated against the poor.
After nine people had testified, Walker said no one else signed up to speak. But members of the audience shouted in protest. Walker offered to continue the hearing in a different room because members of the House were gathering in the chambers to begin session.
Rep. Dave Wilson made a motion to table the bill, and continue the hearing at a later date, which the audience applauded. Wilson’s motion was seconded by Spiegelman and approved by a narrow majority of 11 committee members.
After the hearing, Walker announced the committee would continue the hearing on HB 35 at 2:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 20, at Legislative Hall. “We don’t want to run out of allotted time next week, so the hearing will start in the afternoon and run until we have heard the different concerns and support for the bill,” Walker said in a press release.
To read HB 35, go to delaware.gov.