Dozens of citizens turned out to oppose background checks for private gun sales, but House legislators moved toward a bill requiring checks for the full House to debate.
House Judiciary Committee members voted to release House Bill 35 from committee March 20, despite the majority of people who testified against the bill.
Sponsored by Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, HB 35 would make background checks mandatory for private sales or transfers of firearms. Gun dealers would be required to perform background checks and could charge up to $50 for the service.
The bill excludes gun sales between immediate family members and law enforcement officers.
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.
HB 35 is part of Gov. Jack Markell's package of gun-control control measures, announced in January. Other proposals would require gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms and ban possession of a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school.
A bill to prohibit the sale, manufacture or delivery of magazines that accept more than 10 rounds was introduced March 20, the same day as the hearing for HB 35.
House Bill 58, to ban high-capacity magazines, was assigned to the House Administration Committee, but no date has yet been set for its hearing.
More than 100 Delaware citizens filled the House Chambers of Legislative Hall in Dover for the hearing on the background check measure. More citizens crammed the hall outside of the chambers where audio from the hearing was broadcasted.
The House Judiciary Committee began the hearing March 13, but tabled the bill because time constraints prohibited them from hearing many members of the public who had requested to speak. Eight of nine people who testified March 13 opposed the bill.
At the March 20 hearing, 23 people testified in favor of HB 35, saying it would help chip away at the problem of gun violence, even though it would not solve the problem entirely.
Frederika Jenner, president of Delaware Education Association, said she is a gun owner, and she supports the bill as a reasonable, responsible step towards preventing gun violence.
Jenner said it is the state’s duty to ensure a safe learning environment for Delaware children. “Now more than ever, we need to do what is necessary,” she said.
A number of law enforcement officials also supported the bill, including Fred Calhoun, president of Delaware Fraternal Order of Police.
Calhoun said three officers in the state have been shot in recent months. If HB 35 is passed, it would make it harder for criminals to obtain guns, he said.
Thomas Brackin, president of Delaware State Troopers Association, said many people are opposed to the bill because it is not a perfect solution. “We’re looking for the perfect instead of the good,” he said.
Brackin said if the expansion of background checks prevents one crime, then it is worth approval by the General Assembly.
Members of Delaware Coalition Against Gun Violence also testified in favor of the bill. Retired Sen. Liane Sorenson, a member of the coalition, said 88 percent of Delaware citizens supported expanding background checks. She also said the same poll showed 83 percent of Sussex County residents supported the bill.
Forty-three people testified against HB 35, calling the measure an infringement of citizens’ Second Amendment rights and saying it would do nothing to prevent criminals from obtaining guns.
Delaware 9-12 Patriot Executive Director Theresa Garcia said the coalition’s statistics were flawed. She said the poll was based on a random selection of 600 Delaware residents – less than 1 percent of the population in the state.
Garcia said at a New Castle County Civic League debate March 19, about 200 people attended and nearly all opposed HB 35. “We feel that is a more accurate poll,” she said.
Laurel School District Human Resources Director Monet Smith said she was the victim of a home invasion in December, and it took Delaware State Police one hour to respond to her 911 call. She said HB 35 was designed to make the front page of a newspaper, not to solve the issue of gun violence.
Smith said she opposed the bill because it could restrict her from accepting a firearm from a person who has known her for her entire life. “This legislation will criminalize the innocent,” she said.
Dover resident Louanne Barrett said if someone in the Aurora, Colo. movie theater or Sandy Hook Elementary School had possessed a permit to carry a concealed weapon, they might have stopped the shooters.
“Newtown was in a gun-free zone,” she said. “All of these killings, these massacres, have been in gun-free zones.”
Some of those who opposed the bill said it was an underhanded way of establishing a gun-registration system in Delaware.
“We have a right to privacy in whether or not we choose to have a gun,” Barrett said.
A Newark resident said if the bill’s sponsors were serious about gun-control, they would not exclude law enforcement officers from background checks, or legislators would outlaw private guns sales altogether. He said the main objective of the bill is to implement a gun-registration system.
Beth Parsons, owner of Shooter’s Choice in Dover, said she opposes the bill, even though as a federally licensed firearms dealer she would benefit financially from the $50 background check fee. “I stand on my principles as a citizen first,” she said.
Parsons said the bill would punish law-abiding citizens and do nothing to stop criminals from obtaining guns. She also said the bill was a backdoor effort to establish a statewide gun-registration system.
Monte Whaley, owner of Branchy’s Gun Shop in Laurel, said requiring licensed dealers to perform background checks for private sales would require him to hire more staff, expose him to liability and create more delays for his customers. “Let the state police do it,” he said.
“This legislation is not even law yet, but you already have a room full of frustrated people,” said Delaware resident Mark Allen. “You’re not going to stop evil through legislation.”
Of the eight Democrats on the 11-member committee, seven voted to release the bill, including House Judiciary Chairwoman Rep. Rebecca Walker, D-Middletown, and Vice Chairwoman Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear/Newark.
Sussex County Representatives Steve Smyk, R-Milton, and Dave Wilson, R-Bridgeville, were among the four committee members who voted against releasing the bill.
Committee members did not discuss the bill before the vote.
To read HB 35 and HB 58, go to delaware.gov.