In advance of the March For Our Lives, the Cape Gazette asked all 14 of Sussex County’s legislators two questions. First, what gun measures – current legislation or not – would you support to improve school safety? Second, how will those measures make schools safer? Two of the Cape Region’s legislators submitted individual responses, while the third submitted a response as part of an 11-legislator group response. Sen. Gary Simpson did not respond. Responses have been edited for length.
Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth:
The answer to preventing more mass shootings has to be multifaceted. It must encompass mental health, controlling access to guns, type of guns, aftermarket devices, school safety measures, school infrastructure changes, database limitations and police response procedures, he said.
“To have any success at preventing future tragedies, we must address all of these issues through legislation, regulations or training,” he said.
Schwartzkopf said legislators and law enforcement have been discussing ways to improve security in our schools. He said schools have been mandated to have a comprehensive school safety plan approved, which includes a training element. He said many safety-improvement ideas have been introduced – metal detectors, bullet-resistant glass, devices that prevent classroom doors from opening after the door handle has been shot off, and a safe room, able to withstand almost any attack, inside classrooms.
“We are only limited by our imagination in making our schools safer in the event of a breach of security,” he said.
Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes:
Lopez supports and co-sponsored two bills – House Bills 174 and 300. He said they are sensible, reasonable measures toward improving school safety and the overall safety of the public.
Lopez said he was particularly happy HB300 has moved forward because there is no reason anyone needs to own an accessory that turns a firearm into an automatic weapon.
“Bump stocks caused terrible carnage in Las Vegas in the worst mass shooting in American history,” Lopez said. “Voting to ban them was important to me as a public policymaker and a parent, and I heard this consistently from the majority of constituents who reached out to me.”
Speaking of House Substitute 1 to House Bill 302, known as the Beau Biden Gun Violence Prevention Act, Lopez said, “I am hopeful we can get this bill passed with bipartisan support in the coming weeks.” The measure aims at preventing people with serious mental health issues from possessing firearms.
As for school safety, Lopez said, the Beau Biden bill can protect children in schools and families from gun violence by removing firearms if it is determined a person is showing a desire to harm others.
Reps. Tim Dukes, R-Laurel; Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown; Rich Collins, R-Millsboro; Danny Short, R-Seaford; Dave Wilson, R-Bridgeville; Steve Smyk, R-Milton/Lewes; Harvey Kenton, R-Milford and Ron Gray, R-Selbyville; Sens. Bryant Richardson, R-Laurel; Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View; and Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown:
These questions draw a false equivalency between improved school safety and new gun laws, suggesting that the way to achieve the former is by enacting the latter, the group said.
The group said it supports two pending pieces of legislation – House Bills 335 and 336 – that would provide state assistance to help Delaware public schools further advance this security.
“We understand and share the feelings of shock, fear, and anger provoked by any instance of mass violence. Let us hope we never lose our disgust of these inhumane acts and the empathy we share with the victims,” the legislators said. “However, the emotionally charged atmosphere in the aftermath of such occurrences has too often led to the creation of poorly considered laws addressing the circumstances of the last calamity under the misguided notion they will prevent the next.”
The group of legislators said no new law will stop people with malevolent intent from finding a means to cause harm and acting on those dark impulses. Recent episodes of mass murder have been carried out with firearms, knives, bombs, and vehicles. Existing statutes and government agencies frequently fail to prevent incidents of mass violence, even when given repeated preventative opportunities, such as in the case of the recent Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy.
As state legislators, the group said they have a sworn obligation to protect the rights granted to our citizens under our state and federal constitutions. They said they take issue with those who view these fundamental freedoms as outdated inconveniences that should be pushed aside to satisfy the political winds of the moment.
“Surrendering to such callous disregard would ultimately send us down a slippery slope, diminishing the freedoms of all, leaving no one unscathed,” they said.
The group said prudent firearms legislation has a place in a holistic approach to curtailing violence that also better identifies, evaluates and deals with individuals who exhibit mental illness and pose a threat to themselves or others.
Legislative action regarding gun reform
As of Tuesday, March 27, six bills reforming gun laws in Delaware were in various stages of the approval process. The following is a list of those bills and what stage they are in.
• House Bill 174: This bill increases the penalty for anyone convicted of buying a gun for someone not allowed to have one, known as a straw purchase, to a Class E felony. HB174 was introduced May 16, 2017, passed March 8 by the House and then passed March 15 by the Senate. Gov. John Carney has not signed the bill into law.
• House Bill 222: This is being referred to as a “red flag” bill. It defines a process for family or law enforcement to petition Superior Court when there are definite signs that someone is becoming more dangerous and an imminent threat to others. HB222 was introduced and assigned June 13, 2017, to the House Administration Committee. It has not been acted on since.
• House Bill 300: This bill makes it a crime to sell, transfer, buy, receive or possess a trigger crank or bump-fire device designed to accelerate the rate of fire of a semiautomatic rifle. HB300 was introduced Dec. 14, 2017, and passed by the House March 8. The bill passed through the Senate March 15, but was amended, so the bill has been returned to the House. An amendment creating a temporary compensation program for weapons prohibited under the bill was placed with the bill March 27, but has not yet been voted on.
• House Substitute 1 for House Bill 302: Known as the Beau Biden Gun Violence Prevention Act, this bill addresses the issue of mental health. This bill better defines the diagnosis of a person who is a danger to themselves or others, when a person should be reported and the screening process for commitment for treatment and relinquishment of any firearms they possess. This bill was reported out of committee March 14.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware has challenged the constitutionality of this bill, arguing a person’s due process rights are infringed upon because the person who is in the mental health crisis does not have the right to be present at an emergency hearing and may not have any opportunity to appear in court to challenge the order for 60 days or more, if at all.
• House Substitute 1 for House Bill 330: This bill changes the age of a person to whom another person can sell, give or transfer a firearm or ammunition for a firearm from 18 to 21. This bill was introduced March 13, passed through the House March 20 and has been assigned to the Senate Judicial & Community Affairs Committee.
• Senate Bill 163: This act prohibits the manufacture, sale, offer to sell, transfer, purchase, receipt, possession, or transport of assault weapons in Delaware, subject to certain exceptions. Introduced March 22, the bill is awaiting consideration in the Senate Judicial & Community Affairs Committee.