DOVER, Del. (AP) — Gun rights advocates have filed a federal lawsuit challenging continued virtual meetings of the Delaware General Assembly after Democrats rammed two controversial gun-control bills through the state Senate.
The lawsuit was filed Friday against Democrat and Republican leaders of the House and Senate. It comes amid partisan bickering over the Democrat-controlled legislature continuing to meet online rather than in person. The decision by Senate Democrats to fast-track passage of the gun control bills last week served only to fan the flames.
Republicans are particularly upset about a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that drew more than 800 online attendees. Only about 30 or 40 people were allowed to speak on the gun bills during the two-hour hearing, and they were limited to one minute. Many of them were cut off in mid-sentence after 60 seconds.
The plaintiffs say they have been “aggrieved” by being denied the opportunity to speak against the bills or, in the case of Mitch Denham, president of a group called Delaware Gun Rights, being allowed only one minute to speak.
One of the bills outlaws magazines capable of holding more than 17 rounds. The other requires anyone wanting to buy a handgun to first take a training course, be fingerprinted and obtain a permit from the state. The bills are currently awaiting action in the state House.
“For two key pieces of legislation that substantially infringe on Delawareans right to bear arms to be assigned to committee, ‘debated’ and voted on by the Senate in less than one week is an affront to the U.S. Constitution and the Delaware Constitution,” the lawsuit states.
“Due to the virtual format, the General Assembly is able to be keyboard warriors and silence opposition with the click of a mouse,” it adds. “This is chilling.”
The complaint also alleges that Democrat leaders are using COVID-19 as an excuse to avoid having to face their constituents in person.
The plaintiffs contend that lawmakers are violating provisions of the state and federal constitutions regarding peaceful assembly and due process, as well as a constitutional requirement that the General Assembly “meet and sit in Dover.” They are seeking a restraining order to prohibit lawmakers from continuing to conduct the legislative session virtually. They also want the court to declare that the gun control bills — and all bills passed by the House and Senate in the current legislative session — are “null and void because of the serious constitutional violations.”
The lawsuit was filed by Julianne Murray, a Sussex County attorney and last year’s Republican nominee for governor. Before entering the governor’s race, Murray sued incumbent Democrat John Carney over a ban on short-term rentals he imposed because of the coronavirus. The ban, which was later lifted, temporarily prevented Murray and her husband from renting out their beach condominium.
“Governor Carney and the General Assembly are using the state of emergency to push through a far left legislative agenda while denying Delawareans the right to speak out and be heard in the General Assembly,” Murray said in a statement issued Friday. “They don’t want to deal with any in-person opposition. It is much easier to deal with opposition remotely.”
The filing of the lawsuit comes after GOP lawmakers called this week for Democratic leaders in the General Assembly to set a “hard date” for resuming in-person committee meetings and floor sessions, whether at Legislative Hall or an alternate venue in the Dover area.
Senate Democrats responded that they would not be “bullied” into delaying legislation supported by Delawareans of both parties. They also said the committee meeting on the gun control bills may have been the most well-attended committee meeting in the history of the General Assembly.
“More than 800 people were able to attend that meeting — four times the fire code occupancy limit of the largest room in Legislative Hall,” they noted.
House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf and House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst noted earlier this week that they had met with their Republican counterparts in late March to talk about tentative plans for a phased-in return to in-person sessions this year. They said they were disappointed that Republican leaders had chosen to issue a press release rather than discuss their concerns.
Schwartzkopf declined to comment on the lawsuit but said in an email that the previous statements from Republican legislators “now make a lot more sense.”
“This lawsuit was filed by a former Republican candidate for statewide office and it looks like the Republican leaders in the House and Senate had to fall in line,” he said.
House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford, said he could not assess the merits of the lawsuit, but that Republican lawmakers “agree with the objective.”