Delaware Democrats give final approval to handgun permit-to-purchase bill

Mar 14, 2024, 3:11 PM

DOVER, Del. (AP) — Senate Democrats in Delaware gave final approval Thursday to a bill requiring anyone wanting to buy a handgun to first be fingerprinted, undergo training and obtain permission from the state.

The bill cleared the Senate on a straight party-line vote Thursday and now goes to Democratic Gov. John Carney, who supports it.

Thursday’s vote came exactly one week before a federal appeals court hears arguments on Maryland’s decade-old permit-to-purchase law, which was declared unconstitutional by a three-judge panel of the court in November. Only a handful of other states have similar permit laws, some of which are facing legal challenges. North Carolina repealed its permit law effective earlier this year.

“This is a bill about responsible gun ownership,” chief sponsor Sen. Elizabeth Lockman, a Wilmington Democrat, said of Delaware’s legislation.

GOP lawmakers argue that the legislation violates the rights of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms. They also reject claims that a permit-to-purchase law will reduce gun violence in Delaware, saying criminals will ignore it in the same way they ignore current gun restrictions.

Anthony Delcollo, an attorney for Senate Republicans, told lawmakers the bill establishes a default standard that a person is not entitled to buy a handgun, and that it is unconstitutional. Sen. Eric Buckson, a Dover Republican, warned that the bill will face a court challenge if it becomes law.

The legislation prohibits licensed gun dealers, as well as private sellers, from transferring a handgun to any person unless he or she has a “qualified purchaser permit.”

To obtain a permit, a person must complete a firearms training course and be fingerprinted by the State Bureau of Identification. The SBI would have 30 days to investigate the person and grant a permit if the applicant is qualified. The agency can retain the names and birthdates of permit applicants indefinitely, as well as information about when they completed a training course, and the date a permit was issued or denied.

A permit would be valid for two years. It could be revoked, and any guns purchased with it seized, if the SBI director later determines that the person poses a danger to himself or others by having a gun. The bill includes exemptions for active and retired law enforcement officers, and those who already have concealed carry permits.

The legislation cleared the state House on a mostly party-line vote last week after Democrats defeated several Republican amendments. GOP lawmakers in the Senate then introduced 15 amendments of their own. Democrats rejected them in a series of straight party-line votes Thursday.

Some of the GOP amendments were aimed at ensuring the due process rights of individuals whose permit applications are denied. Others sought to ensure that permit applications are considered without undue delay, and that authorities cannot arbitrarily deny a permit if the applicant meets the requirements. Republicans also introduced proposals to prohibit state law enforcement officials from establishing a registry of gun owners, or requiring applicant to submit demographic information such as gender, national origin and English language proficiency.

Before lawmakers voted on the amendments, Republicans peppered Lockman and attorneys with questions about the bill’s impact and how it would be implemented if signed into law.

While the bill states that some of its provision take effect immediately, Mark Cutrona, head of the legislature’s research division, assured Republicans that people would not be immediately subject to the permit requirements. Implementation of the requirements would not begin until 18 months have passed, or the State Bureau of Identification has developed the necessary regulations, whichever occurs first, he noted.

Major Peter Sawyer of the Delaware State Police was unable to answer several questions from Republican lawmakers about the bill, including what subjective criteria could be used to deny a permit to a person not prohibited by law from having a gun. Under the bill, the SBI director can deny a permit if there is “probable cause” to believe that the person poses a danger to self or others.

“It’s hard to say,” Sawyer said when asked about potentially disqualifying criteria, noting that the regulations have not been developed. Sawyer also was unable to explain what process troopers would follow if authorities revoke a person’s permit and order surrender of permit and any guns the person has.

Carney has included more than $2.9 billion in his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year for the permit program, which he touted during his recent State of the State speech.

Carney acknowledged in his speech, however, that “a very small number of people” associated with street gangs are committing “the vast majority of gun violence” in Wilmington and Dover, Delaware’s two largest cities.

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Delaware Democrats give final approval to handgun permit-to-purchase bill