A bill to require gun owners to tell police when a firearm is lost or stolen is headed to the Senate for debate.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 4-0, March 27 to release Senate Bill 16 to the full Senate. The bill’s supporters say it is intended to curb straw purchases, but its opponents say it is an attempt to impose a gun registration system on Delaware citizens.
About 50 people surrounded a table of senators and other government officials at the committee hearing on the measure. Committee Chairwoman Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington East, is a primary sponsor of the bill.
“I have been exposed to gun violence in my life,” she said. Henry said the bill's purpose is to keep guns away from people who would use them to commit crimes.
The bill is part of a package of gun-control measurers proposed Jan. 14 by Gov. Jack Markell, Lt. Gov. Matt Denn and Attorney General Beau Biden, one month after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
Under SB 19, gun owners would be required to report the loss or theft of a gun to police within 48 hours of discovering the firearm is missing.
Violators would be subject to a fine of $100 to $500 for a first offense. Second and subsequent offenses would be considered felonies.
Steven Wood, of the Attorney General’s Office, testified in favor of the bill. Wood said he is currently prosecuting a case where the gun used in the crime was stolen from its lawful owner six months ago. Wood said if the owner had immediately informed police the gun was stolen, police could have attempted to track the firearm, and the crime might have been prevented.
Department of Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Lewis Schiliro said the bill would be an effective tool for law enforcement in tracking criminals.
Half a dozen other law enforcement officials testified in favor of the bill, including representatives of the state Bureau of Investigation, Delaware State Police and the Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement.
Delaware State Troopers Association President Tom Brackin said the bill adds some accountability to gun owners, and if passed, it would make them more likely to report guns that are lost or stolen.
Opponents disagree. Shannon Alford, Delaware liaison for the National Rifle Association said, “Effectively, this bill criminalizes victimhood.”
Alford said although straw purchasers may not be violent criminals, they are still criminals and are unlikely to comply with the law.
More than a dozen citizens testified against the bill. Jim Atkins of Newark said the bill does nothing to prevent crime; it instead opens the doors to prosecuting a victim.
Atkins said the bill would only work if a mandatory gun registration system were implemented. “I don’t think we understand the purpose of this bill,” he said.
Theresa Garcia, executive director of 9-12 Delaware Patriots, testified she had a gun stolen from her home and reported it one week later. Garcia said she thinks she is a good person, but the bill would turn her into a criminal.
Garcia also said the law would not be effective without a gun registration system.
At least three citizens who testified against the bill argued they would not notice if one of their guns had been stolen.
Sussex County resident John Laprad said he owns about 50 guns, and his wife and son have guns in the same home. “I don’t know which guns are missing from my house. I don’t have a list,” he said. “I don’t want to be made a criminal.”
“I don’t inventory my guns,” said Greenwood resident Matt Opaliski. He said Senate Bill 18 – which would increase the penalty for falsely reporting a lost or stolen gun with the intention to hinder the investigation of a crime – would more effectively target straw purchasers.
SB 18, sponsored by Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, awaits a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Others who testified in favor of the bill said gun ownership is a weighty responsibility, and the small inconvenience of reporting a gun that is lost could save lives.
Rev. Bruce Gillette noted people who own guns are more likely to be shot by them. “They should be able to know when it is stolen,” he said.
Retired New Castle County Police Officer Renee Taschner said gun owners should be held accountable, and it is not too much to ask them to report a stolen firearm.
Sen. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, and Sen. Gary Simpson said the straw purchaser – the person who bought a gun legally and sold it to a person prohibited from buying a gun – could simply lie to the police and say they did not notice the gun was missing.
Schiliro said enforcement would develop over time, and if the same straw purchaser were questioned for a second crime, it would be harder to prove their innocence.
“Almost any law you pass, a crafty guy can get around,” Wood said. He said the problem of gun violence couldn’t be solved by focusing solely on violent criminals. “It’s bigger than that,” Wood said.