Delaware House votes to raise the age for buying rifles to 21, with background checks going back to state

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Legislative Hall in Dover.

The Delaware House passed two measures Tuesday that would raise the age to purchase firearms to 21 and strengthen background checks.

Federal law requires a buyer to be at least 21 years old for all handgun purchases, but only 18 years old for long guns, including rifles and shotguns. State law mirrors those federal requirements.

House Bill 451, sponsored by House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, would increase to 21 the age of a person to whom another person can sell or transfer a long gun or ammunition for a firearm.

“We already prohibit people under 21 from buying a handgun, and there’s no reason we should treat long guns any differently. More and more, the research shows that 18 is a delicate age, and allowing teens to walk into a store and purchase a firearm is inviting problems. In Delaware, the most common age for shooters has been 18-21 the past few years,” said Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, a retired Delaware State trooper. “We need to learn from every mass shooting and take decisive action to prevent the next one. Unfortunately, what we saw in Uvalde and Buffalo happened in Parkland four years ago – someone under 21 bought a gun that was designed for the military and used it to murder students. It’s long past time that Delaware lead on this issue and raise the age for buying a rifle to 21.”

According to the Giffords Law Center, six other states require a person to be 21 to purchase a long gun. The others, including Delaware, follow the federal requirement of 18 years of age.

Opponents argued that the ban was unfair to young hunters and those under 21 who want to defend their homes. Amendments were made to address some of the concerns. They also pointed to the low rate of murders via rifle.

HB 451 would allow limited exceptions for shotguns and muzzle-loading rifles and related ammunition. Active military members, National Guard members, law enforcement officers, and those who have a concealed-carry license who are 18 years or older also would be exempted. The bill also would allow a person under 21 to possess or control a firearm for hunting as long as they comply with existing Delaware law for hunting.

HB 451 passed the House, 27-13, with two Republican legislators joining Democrats in voting yes.

Additionally, the House passed a measure Tuesday that would reinstitute the Firearm Transaction Approval Program (FTAP) within the State Bureau of Identification (SBI) of the Delaware State Police to strengthen background checks, reduce straw purchases and provide more local control over firearms purchases.

Sponsored by House Majority Whip Larry Mitchell, House Bill 423 would designate the bureau’s FTAP as the point of contact between a federal firearms licensee and the federal databases checked by the FBI to conduct background checks for firearm purchases or transfers.

By establishing SBI as the point of contact for all firearm purchases or transfers in Delaware, the bureau would become responsible for determining if a potential buyer or transferee is prohibited from receipt or possession of a firearm under state or federal law. This would enable the state to search other databases in addition to relying on the NICS check, enhancing background checks conducted in the state.

“Thorough and complete background checks are still one of the best ways to ensure that people who should not possess firearms are not able to obtain them,” said Mitchell, D-Elsmere. “A national system can have gaps that potentially problematic buyers could slip through. Re-establishing FTAP will help us identify people who would otherwise be prohibited but NICS might have missed, such as a person convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense. It will make our background check system stronger and more thorough and provide more protection for residents.”

For example, persons who are convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense are prohibited from possessing a firearm for five years. NICS would not be aware of such an offense unless it was identified as a domestic violence offense in a particular system. FTAP, however, would have access to state records and would be able to more easily identify the relationship between victim and offender for a particular conviction.

Additionally, any person who has an outstanding warrant is prohibited.  However, NICS only has access to a national database capturing those persons with outstanding warrants who the prosecuting agency has requested be extradited back to answer to the charges. The vast majority of misdemeanor warrants are not in this database, meaning those individuals are not flagged. FTAP would have access to local databases to identify and deny those persons.

Under HB 423, firearms dealers who suspect a straw purchase has or is occurring would be able to notify SBI using the same hotline that would be established for background checks through FTAP. The new FTAP system would be required to be up and running within one year of the bill’s signing into law.

HB 423 passed the House unanimously.

The bills are part of a historic package of bills to address issues these and other issues surrounding firearm safety. Last week, the House passed a bill to prohibit the sale, manufacture, purchase or possession of assault-style weapons in Delaware.

In addition, lawmakers have filed bills to limit high-capacity magazines, hold gun manufacturers and dealers liable for reckless or negligent actions, and ban the use of devices that convert handguns into fully automatic weapons.

HB 423 and HB 451 now head to the Senate for consideration.

Opponents of some of the measures, such as the assault weapons sales ban warn that legislation will face legal challenges.