Delaware Supreme Court rules against states firearm ban in public parks, forests

By Lynn R. Parks

Two years after two sport shooting groups challenged the states right to ban firearms in public parks and forests, the Delaware Supreme Court has ruled in their favor. As a result, the state last week issued interim regulations allowing people to carry guns onto public lands.

Previously, people could have guns in state parks and forests only if they were hunting.

The regulations, which went into effect immediately, will remain for up to 180 days, until permanent regulations can be written.

Firearms are still prohibited in certain designated areas, including park offices, visitor centers, museums, group camping areas, swimming pools and guarded beaches. But the new ban exempts people who have licenses to carry concealed weapons and active or retired law enforcement officers. After showing their licenses to park officials, those people are permitted to carry guns even in the special designated areas.

In addition, someone who wants to have a gun in a designated area for self-protection may apply to the state for permission to do so, on a daily basis.

The Bridgeville Rifle & Pistol Club was one of the sport shooting groups that filed the suit in Dec. 2015. The other was the Delaware State Sportsmens Association. There were also five individuals among the plaintiffs.

The suit said that the regulations violated the states Constitution. It also argued that the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, which oversees state parks, and the Department of Agriculture, which manages state forests, exceeded their authority by enacting the regulations.

In Dec. 2016, Superior Court Judge T. Henley Graves ruled in favor of the state, saying that regulations against carrying guns on public lands are necessary to achieve the important governmental objective of keeping the public safe from the potential harm of firearms in state parks and forests. He also said that the regulations did not place an undue or unreasonable burden on the members of the shooting clubs and on the private citizens who joined in the suit. Plaintiffs remain free to hunt on state lands in accordance with the reasonable restrictions in place, he wrote.

The Supreme Courts 3 to 2 vote, issued Dec. 7, overturns the Superior Court ruling. Writing for the majority, Justice Karen Valihura said that state regulations that banned guns in state parks violate the states Constitution. Article 1, Section 20 of the Delaware Constitution reads, A person has the right to keep and bear arms for the defense of self, family, home and state, and for hunting and recreational use.

The regulations completely eviscerate a core right to keep and bear arms for defense of self and family outside of the home a right this court has already recognized, Valihura wrote.

She cited the courts 2014 decision that the Wilmington Housing Authority couldnt forbid its residents from owning and carrying guns. In that unanimous decision, the court held that Delawares Constitution is intentionally broader than the U.S. Constitutions Second Amendment and protects the right to bear arms outside the home, Valihura wrote. Section 20 protects a core right of defense of self and family in addition to the home.

Valihura wrote that a general safety concern does not justify regulations that violate the Constitution. As for Graves assertion that the regulations didnt infringe on the plaintiffs rights because they were still allowed to hunt wrongly presumes that the ability to exercise just part of onesÉrights is an adequate substitute for eliminating the core right of self-defense entirely.

Writing for the minority, Chief Justice Leo Strine said that the state regulations restricting guns in parks and forests predated the Constitutions Section 20, which was enacted in 1987. The regulations in state parks follow a lineage of Delaware park policies dating back to at least 1887, he wrote. And the forest regulations were derived from hunting restrictions dating back to at least 1911.

The recent attention to the regulations, he wrote, was spurred by arguments over the U.S. Constitutions Second Amendment. The majority has given [the state Constitutions] Section 20 a federal coat of paint, a gloss of meaning more derived from Washington, D.C., than Dover, Delaware, he wrote.

Strine described state parks and forests as places designed for games and recreation. There, emotions can run high, he wrote. When folks camp, they sometime drink, including at events within the parks like beer and wine festivals. When folks drink and carouse, they sometimes get jealous and angry. When folks play or attend sporting events, spirits run high and sometimes out of control. When folks get emotional around guns, things can get dangerous fast.

And in a state park or forest, theres no place to go to escape someone firing a gun, Strine wrote. There are no natural boundaries in parks and forests signaling areas where park-goers can find safety from gunfire.

Strine called the reasoning behind the regulations common-sense. The gun ban advance[d] the public purposes served by our parks and forests, and facilitate[d] the safe enjoyment of these public spaces by families and children, he wrote.

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