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Delaware proposal seeks to redefine definition of firearms

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(The Center Square) — Delaware’s overly broad firearm laws encompass a range of non-lethal weapons from slingshots to paint guns, according to critics, who are pushing for changes in state law.

A Republican-led proposal being considered by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee would redefine a firearm as “a weapon from which a shot, projectile or other object is designed or may readily be converted to be discharged by force of an explosive, whether operable or inoperable, loaded or unloaded.”

The proposal, if approved, would also create a new category of “projectile weapons” that include bows, crossbows, crossbow bolt, spears and air guns larger than .177 caliber, among other items.

Under the state’s criminal codes, a firearm includes “any weapon from which a shot, projectile or other object may be discharged by force of combustion, explosive, gas and/or mechanical means, whether operable or inoperable, loaded or unloaded.” BB guns are not included.

But critics say that overly broad definition means many non-lethal weapons, like slingshots, paint guns, and even pumpkin cannons are considered firearms that are subject to the state’s gun control laws.

“Essentially, our law says that anything that fires anything is a firearm,” said state Rep. Jeff Spiegelman, R-Townsend, Clayton, Smyrna, one of the bill’s primary sponsors. “That’s a problem because it encompasses a lot of other technologies and devices that most people do not think of as firearms and are not considered as firearms anywhere else in the nation.”

Another backer, state Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, said the state Department of Justice has been reluctant to support the changes “because the broad definition gives prosecutors a wide amount of latitude to charge people with firearms crimes, even when a gun was not involved.”

“During the task force’s work on this issue, the DOJ argued for maintaining the status quo, promising they would not abuse their power,” he said. “That’s problematic, not only because of the potential for citizens to wrongfully be charged with crimes but because it leaves a great deal of ambiguity in the Delaware Code.”

A similar measure was approved by the House last year with bipartisan support but failed to win approval in the state Senate.

“This new measure is more nuanced and well-considered,” Spiegelman said. “It considers and addresses all of the valid concerns expressed by prosecutors while protecting Delaware citizens from being unfairly charged with firearms crimes for unintentional acts that do not involve guns.”

Consideration of the bill comes as the judiciary committee is also considering proposals to tighten the state’s gun control laws, including an expansion of the ‘red flag’ law that allows authorities to confiscate firearms belonging to people who are deemed at risk to themselves or others.

Last month, the Democratic-controlled Legislature approved a bill that would require Delaware residents to obtain a permit to purchase a handgun after completing an approved firearm training course, sending the bill to Gov. John Carney for consideration. Carney is expected to sign the bill, which will likely face a legal challenge from Second Amendment groups who argue the move is unconstitutional.

Only a handful of other states have similar handgun permit laws, some of which are facing legal challenges, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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