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Delaware House pass bill requiring fingerprinting, training and permit before buying handgun

Delaware's Democrat-led House passed a bill that would instate fingerprinting, training, and permit requirements for anyone who wants to buy a handgun.

Delaware's Democrat-led House voted mostly along party lines Thursday to approve a bill requiring anyone who wants to buy a handgun to first be fingerprinted, undergo training and obtain permission from the state.

Thursday’s vote came exactly two weeks before a federal appeals court is scheduled to hear arguments on Maryland’s decade-old permit-to-purchase law, which was declared unconstitutional by a three-judge panel of the court in November. Only a handful of other states have similar permit laws, some of which are facing legal challenges. North Carolina repealed its permit law effective earlier this year.

Majority Leader Melissa Minor-Brown, chief House sponsor of the Delaware legislation, insisted that permit-to-purchase laws are effective in reducing gun deaths. "States with permit laws have 25 percent lower gun homicide rates, 50 percent lower gun suicide rates," she said.

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However in Maryland, the annual number of murders over the past decade have exceeded the total in 2013, when the state’s permit law was passed. (2014 is the sole year that is an exception.)

House lawmakers voted 23-16 for the legislation, which cleared the Democrat-controlled Senate on a party-line vote last May, before the Maryland court ruling. Two House Democrats joined Republicans in voting against the bill, which heads back to the Senate for consideration with several amendments from the House.

"This legislation has been the product of years of discussions," Minor-Brown said Thursday, dismissing GOP suggestions that the legislation was being rushed. Still, Democrats passed two last-minute amendments she introduced during Thursday’s floor debate, including one restricting the scope of a Republican amendment that lawmakers had approved barely an hour earlier. The GOP amendment was aimed at exempting certain people from the training requirements if they already have firearms training, such as members of the military, certified firearms instructors, and licensed gun dealers.

House lawmakers passed the bill despite concerns about its price tag, rejecting several GOP amendments that Republicans said would reduce the financial burden imposed both on taxpayers and prospective gun buyers. Legislative analysts estimate that the permitting system will cost taxpayers about $3 million in initial implementation costs, and about $5 million annually thereafter, even after elimination of a proposed training voucher program for low-income people.

Democratic Gov. John Carney has included more than $2.9 billion in his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year for the permit program, which he touted during his State of the State speech Tuesday.

Gun-control advocates say the permit mandate will reduce the number of homicides, suicides and accidental shootings in Delaware. They also contend that the permit requirement will make it more difficult for people to make illegal "straw purchases" of handguns on behalf of those prohibited by law from possessing them.

"Criminals avoid purchasing firearms in states where permit laws exist," Minor-Brown said.

Opponents say the bill infringes on the rights of law-abiding citizens and will have no effect on criminals who ignore gun laws and are to blame for gun violence in the state. Carney acknowledged on Tuesday that "a very small number of people" associated with street gangs are committing "the vast majority of gun violence" in Wilmington and Dover, Delaware’s two largest cities.

Critics also argue that a permitting process poses a time-consuming and costly infringement on people wanting to exercise their right to defend themselves with firearms — a right enshrined in Delaware’s constitution. Republican lawmakers warned that the bill will be challenged in court if it becomes law.

"My opinion is that it will be held to be unconstitutional," Republican House attorney Ron Smith testified.

Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Jennings said she is convinced that the legislation is unconstitutional. "What’s being done here is reasonable regulations and requirements," she said.

The bill prohibits licensed gun dealers, as well as private sellers, from transferring a handgun to any person unless he or she has a "qualified purchaser permit."

To obtain a permit, a person must complete a firearms training course and be fingerprinted by the State Bureau of Identification. The SBI would have 30 days to investigate the person and grant a permit if the applicant is qualified. The agency can retain the names and birthdates of permit applicants indefinitely, as well as information about when they completed a training course, and the date a permit was issued or denied.

A permit would be valid for two years. It could be revoked, and any guns purchased with it seized, if the SBI director later determines that the person poses a danger to himself or others by having a gun.

State officials would have up to 1.5 years to implement the permitting program, which exempts active and retired law enforcement officers, and those who already have concealed carry permits.

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