House passes 3 gun measures including bill that opens door for lawsuits against negligent dealers

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The Delaware House passed three gun safety bills Tuesday, approving measures that will raise the age to purchase most firearms, hold gunmakers and gun dealers responsible for reckless actions, and prohibit the possession or sale of devices that can convert semi-automatic weapons into automatic firearms.

The bills are part of a package of six measures the governor and House and Senate leaders announced earlier this month. The measures passed on largely party line votes.

Both chambers already have passed legislation that would ban assault-style weapons, prohibit the sale of large-capacity gun magazines, and strengthen background checks.

Opponents warned that legislation other than background checks will be challenged in courts, especially with the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on concealed weapons.

Sponsored by northern Democratic Reps. Dave Bentz and Senate Majority Leader Bryan Townsend, Senate Bill 302 would amend the existing liability shield that protects gunmakers and gun dealers from civil action when their conduct knowingly or recklessly endangers the safety and health of Delawareans.

Also known as the Keshall “Keke” Anderson Safe Firearm Sales Act, SB 302 would allow someone harmed by the gun industry’s recklessness or negligence to sue for damages while permitting the Delaware Department of Justice to seek an injunction prohibiting that gun industry member from continuing to engage in those actions.

Delaware Code currently provides the firearm industry with one of the strongest state liability shields in the nation. A Delaware Superior Court judge recently cited state law as the sole reason for dismissing a lawsuit filed against a Christiana firearms dealer by the family of a 19-year-old bystander who was gunned down in a 2016 drive-by shooting.

According to the lawsuit, an employee of Cabela’s sold a pistol used in the shooting to a woman who was making a straw purchase on behalf of her boyfriend, a convicted felon who orchestrated the sale over the phone from outside the store.

The gun was later sold on the criminal market to two underage teenagers who used the illegally purchased weapon to indiscriminately fire on bystanders in Wilmington, killing Keshall “KeKe” Anderson, the mother of a 6-month-old boy.

Sponsored by Newark-area legislators, Rep. Ed Osienski and Senate President Pro Tempore Dave Sokola, Senate Bill 8 would outlaw the possession, sale, and use of auto sears, “Glock switches,” and other devices that can convert semi-automatic firearms into fully automatic machine guns.

During the last decade, large quantities of foreign-made conversion devices have been sold online to customers in the United States. The small devices also can be 3-D printed.

A gunman armed with a semi-automatic pistol modified with a machine gun conversion device shot three Houston police officers in January, while another gunman armed with a weapon modified by a similar device killed six people and wounded 12 others in Sacramento in April, House Democrats noted.

The proposed ban on conversion devices follows the Delaware General Assembly’s 2018 ban of bump stocks, trigger cranks and other after-market devices that also can be used to accelerate the firing action of semi-automatic weapons. In 2021, lawmakers also successfully outlawed homemade “ghost guns,” or unfinished receivers and 3-D printed firearms that are not marked by serial numbers and can circumvent background check laws.

House Bill 451, sponsored by House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf and  Sokola, 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. 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.

“The research shows that 18 is a delicate age, and allowing teens to walk into a store and purchase a firearm is inviting problems,” said Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach “It’s long past time that Delaware lead on this issue and raise the age for buying a rifle to 21. I’m glad we’ve been able to reach the finish line on this bill, which will save lives, and send it to Governor Carney.”

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. Those responsible for two recent mass shootings in Texas and Buffalo were under 21.

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.

A Senate amendment added earlier Tuesday would establish a three-year exemption from the possession and use part of the prohibition to address concerns about those 18-20 who already own legally obtained firearms and make clear that residents under 21 are permitted to safely transport those weapons for the purpose of participating in hunting, target shooting and other exempted activities.

The bills now to go the governor.