Proposed legislation will toughen weapons possession penalties

Attorney General Matt Denn, state Sens. Bruce Ennis and Margaret Rose Henry and Rep. Larry Mitchell announced legislation Monday designed to guarantee prison time for offenders caught with guns they are prohibited having by law because of prior violent crimes.

The bill is designed to close a loophole regarding people prohibited from possessing, purchasing, or owning a firearm because of violent crimes they committed when they were 16 or 17 years old. The bill establishes a minimum mandatory prison sentence for those adults with guns, a provision not currently in Delaware law because a juvenile’s conviction for a violent crime cannot currently be taken into account once that person is an adult.

With the new bill, a juvenile adjudication for a violent felony by a 16- or 17-year-old, followed by a conviction as an adult for illegal firearm possession, would result in the same minimum mandatory time as if the violent felony had been committed as an adult.

The bill will also establish minimum mandatory sentences for those repeatedly convicted of illegally carrying firearms, even if the reason they were prohibited was not for committing a violent felony.

Title 11, Section 1448, of the Delaware Code has a list of offenses — felonies, misdemeanors, and non-criminal acts — for which a conviction results in a person being barred. Currently, a person prohibited from having a firearm for reasons other than commission of a violent felony doesn’t face a minimum mandatory sentence, even if he has been convicted multiple times.

“This bill is important because it targets minimum mandatory time at the individuals who law enforcement believes are causing a significant portion of our street violence: young adults carrying guns, who already have prior violent histories as 16- and 17-year-olds,” said Denn. “It will also allow us to have a strong, consistent message as prosecutors: If you have committed a violent crime and you are caught carrying a gun, you are going to do time.”

The bill is similar to House Bill 73 from the last General Assembly session, which passed the House 40-1 and was released from Senate committee, with the exception that the bill will be limited to violent offenses committed by those 16 or 17 years old, and not include offenses from when someone is 15 or younger.

“As a former police officer and the chair of the Senate’s Adult & Juvenile Corrections Committee, I know that many of our violent crimes are being committed by repeat offenders,” said Ennis. “This bill makes sure we’re holding people responsible who don’t learn from mistakes made at an age when they’re old enough to know better.”

“I believe in second-chances,” said Henry, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, “but when someone already convicted of a violent crime as a 16- or 17-year-old goes down that same path again as an adult, there’s reason to believe they are a real threat to our community and we need to protect the public.”

Mitchell, a retired New Castle County police officer and chair of the House Public Safety & Homeland Security Committee, said the legislation will help curb gun violence and make communities safer by getting repeat offenders off our streets.

“People who repeatedly use guns when committing crimes are not making a mistake. They are making a conscious decision to carry a deadly weapon,” said Mitchell. “With the spike of gun violence in recent years, illegal gun possession must be a focus of our efforts. We cannot allow people who repeatedly commit these crimes to avoid a prison sentence on a technicality. By closing these loopholes, we will be taking an important step in stemming the tide by making sure that repeat offenders serve time in prison.”

In addition to Ennis and Henry, and Mitchell, co-sponsors of the legislation will include: Sens. Patricia Blevins, Colin Bonini, Bethany Hall-Long, Ernesto Lopez, Robert Marshall, Brian Pettyjohn, Nicole Poore, and David Sokola, and Reps. Michael Barbieri, Stephanie Bolden, Quinn Johnson, Sean Lynn, Sean Matthews, Edward Osienski, Charles Potter Jr., Michael Ramone, Bryon Short, Daniel Short and Kimberly Williams.