Gun control opponents say the four items dealing with restrictions on firearms in Attorney General Kathy Jennings’ list of 10 legislative priorities will do more harm than good.
Among them are requiring a permit to purchase firearms, which she said would reduce homicides and suicides; banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines; regulating homemade gun kits, because they have been playing an increase role in Delaware shootings; and banning guns in polling places because they are an anti-voter intimidation measure.
“She stepped out of bounds and she went so far as to talk about four different things that are nothing more than trying to ban firearms claiming that it’s going to make people safer, and it’s not,” said Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel. He had laid into her during a recent budget hearing before the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.
“There’s two issues here,” he said later. “One is her lane, and one is the subject matter.”
Jennings was not available for comment, but Delaware Department of Justice Communications Director Mat Marshall said in an email that no should be surprised that the attorney general publicized her agenda or that it included gun bills.
“The number of American lives lost to gun-related injuries in a single year is warlike. That’s not an exaggeration,” Marshall said. “In the last 50 years or so, more Americans have been killed by guns than in all of America’s wars combined. We shouldn’t accept the status quo on gun violence and, like the vast majority of Delawareans and Americans who support these policies, we don’t.”
She has support.
“Gun violence is not a left or right issue. It’s a life or death issue, and to me it’s really the crux of the whole conversation,” said Traci Manza Murphy, executive director of the Delaware Coalition Against Gun Violence. “We need to take gun violence prevention out of the political context and look at it as all of us working together as a community to keep people safe.”
She said one reason Jennings wants to require permits to purchase a gun is to keep both law enforcement officers on the street and as well as citizens safe.
Jennings’ other six legislative points included ending cash bail, securing the right to vote, ending excessive court fines, outlawing certain unfair business practices, redefining the states use of force standard and funding body cameras for every police officer in the state.
Publicizing an agenda is common, Marshall said.
“It is not new. Previous Delaware attorneys general, attorneys general in other states and other public officials and Delaware State agencies routinely recommend legislation relating to their work and partner with legislators to advance those measures,” Marshall said. “In fact, the Department of Justice’s enabling statute (Title 29, Section 1953 of the Delaware Code) explicitly calls on the DOJ to make such recommendations. The attorney general is charged with protecting Delawareans’ safety, civil rights, consumer protections, and access to justice, and her priorities advance those duties.”
“It’s perfectly normal,” said Francis Pileggi, a Wilmington lawyer who used to work in the House of Representatives. “I don’t know what the contents are but the fact that she has a legislative agenda is perfectly normal.”
Lawson said he believes it’s well within Jennings’ realm of responsibilities to bring a bill to the legislative branch to be filed and voted on, but the fact that she came out with a list of legislative priorities crosses a line between the legislative and judicial branch that should not be crossed.
“For her to come out with a legislative priority — in other words, ‘This is what I’m going to do’ — when she doesn’t have the ability to that, then she’s jumping out of her lane,” Lawson said. “She needs to stay there and prosecute people like she’s supposed to. That’s her job as the top prosecutor for the state.
“As far as gun legislation, you’re just making law abiding citizens criminals and making more victims.”
He believes legislation that restricts gun rights puts people who live in more rural areas of the state in danger.
“I live in the country. Cops, 20 minutes at best getting here. What am I to do?” Lawson said. “So now I’m going to say, ‘Well, I can only have this’ or ‘I can only have that, but the bad guy can have anything.’”
Jeff Hauge, president of the Delaware Sportsman Association, objects to restrictions on both gun kits and a permit requirements.
“You can go online or to a store and buy a lower receiver for an AR platform that’s only 80% complete,” he said. “You then buy the jigs and the tooling that you can put together to finish that receiver and then you can assemble your own AR platform, which is a hobby a lot of people have. It’s like fixing up cars.”
Hague said that once the weapon is 81% complete, the federal government requires you to put a serial number on the weapon if you choose to sell the weapon.
He believes the permit requirement is a reductive and classist policy to enact.
“One of the states you can look at is New Jersey,” he said. “They’ve required a permit to purchase for years, and their rates for homicide and shootings don’t go down. They’ve never gone down and, in some cases, they’ve gone up. It’s a bad argument to say that requiring a permit is going reduce anything except for the amount of money in people pockets.”
Murphy said there is proof it does work. Nationally, gun control advocates say guns are involved in 1/3 of homicides and 2/3 of suicides. In Delaware it’s closer to 50-50, she said.
When Connecticut enacted some gun control measures, it saw a 40% drop in gun-related homicides and 15% drop in suicides, she said. In Missouri, where a bill was repealed, the state saw an average 22% rise in gun-related homicides and 15% rise in suicides.
She also noted that Delaware has never had a mass shooting event and few unintentional shootings involving something like a child getting his or her hands on a gun and discharging it.
“That may indicate that we have a lot of responsible gun owners who keep their weapons locked up and away from kids,” she said.
Hague said that permits could dissuade people of lower socioeconomic class from purchasing a firearm through the legal routes, and instead acquire one through the black market.
Both Hague and Lawson referenced the 14-page Centers for Disease Control report on gun violence in Wilmington that was published in 2015.
The study concluded that several risk factors such as trauma, unemployment and juvenile criminal involvement are correlated to high rates of gun violence in the city’s youth. The CDC recommended community outreach, counseling, job placement and further investment into the areas education services to remedy these risk factors.
“The CDC report did not call for stricter gun laws because it was prohibited from doing so by an NRA-backed amendment passed in 1996 and not repealed until 2018,” Marshall said. “(To be clear, the NRA lobbied for that amendment because a study published three years earlier in the New England Journal of Medicine found that guns in a home were correlated with an increased risk of homicide.) The CDC’s study on gun violence in Wilmington could only proceed because it took pains to avoid talking about gun safety.”
New laws alone are not the answer, Murphy said.
“In a community where they do better with gun violence problems than we do, they put together strong legislation, well-funded and well-run community intervention programs and robust widespread education programs about about best practices and safety,” Murphy said.