Delaware House approves ‘divisive’ handgun licensing laws

Republican lawmakers argued during the debate on the House version of the bill that it was likely to be deemed unconstitutional.
Gun, We the People, Eatonville, Wash., July 4, 2020

(The Center Square) — The Delaware House of Representatives has approved a "divisive" bill that would require a state license and training to own a handgun despite the threat of a legal challenge.

The proposal, which passed 23-16 on a largely party-line vote, would require Delaware residents to obtain a permit to purchase a handgun after completing an approved firearm training course. The Democratic-controlled Senate approved a similar bill last year.

Backers of the plan argue that it would reduce gun violence, suicides and homicides and crack down on illegal "straw purchases" of handguns on behalf of those prohibited by law from possessing them.

"This legislation has been the product of years of discussions, meetings and collaboration with colleagues in this building, constituents, advocates and stakeholders," House Majority Leader Melissa Minor-Brown, D-New Castle. "That is the fifth-highest rate of gun violence in the nation."

Republican lawmakers who opposed the "divisive" proposal argued the regulations violate the Second Amendment rights and would do little to curb gun violence in the state.

Under the proposal, anyone who wants to purchase a handgun must complete a firearms training course and submit to a background check — including fingerprinting — by the state Bureau of Identification. If approved, a handgun permit would be valid for two years and could be revoked if the state agency determines the person is a risk to themselves or others.

Those with valid concealed carry permits and qualified law enforcement officers would not be required to obtain or present a handgun purchase permit.

The bill comes with a price tag for the state's taxpayers. A legislative analysis of the proposal estimated that the permitting system would cost the state $3 million in the first year to implement the system, and another $7.8 million annually. That includes the cost of a proposed voucher program to defray training and permitting costs for low-income residents.

A GOP amendment to the bill would exempt people with firearms training, members of the military, certified firearms instructors, and licensed gun dealers from the training requirements, but the chamber's Democratic majority narrowed the scope of that exemption with another amendment.

Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, supports the move and has called for more than $2.9 billion for the firearm licensing program in his upcoming budget, set to be released soon.

"Over the past seven years, we’ve banned assault weapons, bump stocks and high-capacity magazines," Carney said during his State of the State speech last Tuesday. "We’ve passed red flag laws and prevented straw purchases. This year, we’ll take another big step forward and pass the permit to purchase law."

But the push to tighten firearm laws comes as the U.S. Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear arguments in a Maryland lawsuit challenging the state's decade-old permit-to-purchase law, which was declared unconstitutional by a three-judge panel in a November decision.

Republican lawmakers argued during the debate on the House version of the bill that it was likely to be deemed unconstitutional. Only a handful of other states have similar handgun permit laws, some of which are facing legal challenges, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Delaware Sportsman's Association, which represents gun owners, has called the handgun permit proposal "pure politics" and vowed to file a legal challenge if the plan is approved.

But Delaware's Attorney General Kathy Jennnings said she is "convinced" that Delaware's gun permitting proposal would survive any constitutional legal challenge.

"I am convinced this bill is constitutional and that the appropriate courts will rule that it is constitutional," Jennings, a Democrat, said in remarks on Thursday. "What’s being done here is reasonable regulations and requirements to enable people to carry guns safely."

Because the House amended the bill, it must now go back to the Senate for a vote before heading to Carney's desk for consideration.