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House votes to raise age to purchase guns, reestablish state background checks

Delaware Public Media

In the wake of high-profile mass shootings committed by 18-year-olds who recently purchased guns, a bill sponsored by House Speaker, State Rep. Peter Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth) has become a centerpiece of the gun safety reform package advancing through the state legislature this month.

The bill would raise the minimum age to purchase firearms in Delaware from 18 to 21, with the exception of shotguns. The bill also makes exceptions for military service members and members of the national guard. Amendments introduced by Republicans to exempt married 18- to 21-year-olds from the rule failed on the House floor.

Schwarzkopf says his bill reflects widely accepted science about juvenile brain development and statistics about the disproportionate impact of gun violence on young adults.

“When we were growing up, if you made a bad decision, you ended up with a bloody nose," he said, addressing a Republican colleague's allusions to hunting in his adolescence. "Now days, you make a bad decision and people die. We’re trying to stop that. I don’t know that you can ever take all of these guns out of their hands and make them not make bad decisions, but we can make it harder.”

House Republicans argue that if the bill passes, it will almost certainly face a constitutional challenge in state courts, and Schwartzkopf says he’s prepared to let a court resolve the issue.

Meanwhile, a bill re-establishing a state-level background check system – administered by Delaware’s State Bureau of Investigation – has emerged as a rare point of consensus between House Democrats and Republicans.

Delaware did away with a state-level background check system for gun purchases a decade ago during a period of budget cuts, relying instead on a federally administered system.

Bill sponsor State Rep. Larry Mitchell (D-Elsmere) says the federal background check system can miss some key details about a prospective gun buyer’s background.

“And that’s where this bill comes in and makes things better for background checks," he said. "Those prohibited now include domestic violence offenses, those with outstanding misdemeanor warrants, and drug addicts and users.”

The proposal dates back to earlier this spring, emerging from discussions between Democrats and Republicans in both chambers of the state legislature.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.