House lawmakers have approved a bill raising the minimum age for anyone in Delaware to legally possess or purchase any rifle, or firearm ammunition, from 18 to 21, the same age requirement for handguns.
The bill cleared the House 27-13 on a mostly party-line vote Tuesday after being amended to exempt members of the National Guard and to clarify that a person under 21 could still use a gun for self-defense if the use of such force is justifiable under state law. The legislation, part of a package of gun restrictions that Gov. John Carney and fellow Democrats are pushing to pass by the end of this month in the wake of recent mass shootings in other states, now goes to the Democrat-controlled Senate.
The bill does not apply to shotguns or muzzleloaders and allows possession of a firearm by a person under 21 for hunting or other recreational activity while under the direct supervision of a person 21 or older.
“18 to 21 doesn’t mean you can’t use that gun. You have to be supervised, and you cannot go buy one,” said House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, chief sponsor of the legislation.
Schwartzkopf, a Rehoboth Democrat, also sponsored the amendment clarifying that a person under 21 can use a gun in self-defense if that deadly force is justified under the provisions of Delaware’s criminal code.
“Our self-defense doctrine in our state would allow them to do that, but I wanted to make it perfectly clear,” said Schwartzkopf, citing concerns raised during a committee hearing last week.
“This basically tells anybody that if you’re home and you’re in danger, you can use whatever you need to use, whether it be a gun that you're not supposed to have possession of, or anything, in self-defense,” he explained.
Democrats also agreed to exempt National Guard members from the legislation, which already included exemptions for police officers, active members of the military, and holders of concealed-carry permits.
They rejected GOP proposals to exempt rimfire rifles and ammunition, people under age 21 who own real estate or who have been married for at least six months, and those who have obtained written consent from a parent or guardian to buy a gun.
“I think we’re going to make criminals out of young adults trying to start families,” said Minority Leader Danny Short, a Seaford Republican.
Meanwhile, House lawmakers voted unanimously Tuesday for legislation putting state law enforcement officials in charge of background checks for gun purchases.
A bill approved Tuesday and sent to the Senate would resurrect Delaware’s Firearm Transaction Approval Program, which was eliminated more than a decade ago when lawmakers voted to rely on the federal government’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.
That vote came amid concerns at the time that Delaware’s background check system was not providing NICS with information about mentally ill individuals prohibited from buying or possessing firearms. The bill authorized state agencies to provide such information to NICS, created a federally mandated program allowing individuals previously deemed mentally ill to re-establish their eligibility for gun ownership, and abolished the state’s existing background check system as redundant.
Lawmakers now want to reverse course amid concerns that NICS may not capture people prohibited under Delaware law from possessing firearms, including people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors and those subject to outstanding warrants.
The bill calls for the State Bureau of Identification to be the point of contact between gun dealers and the federal databases checked by the FBI. The SBI would thus become responsible for determining whether a person is prohibited from receiving or possessing a firearm under state or federal law, and would be able to search other databases other than NICS in making that determination.