August 11, 2003
New Castle County - Civil Division
Valerie M. Watson, MPA
Director, Division of Professional Regulation
861 Silver Lake, Blvd., Suite 203
Dover, DE 19904
RE: Deadly Weapons Dealers Licenses Dear Director Watson:
You have asked whether businesses that "sell long weapons such as rifles or shotguns require a Deadly Weapons Dealers License." It is our understanding that the Division has never required such a license to sell long weapons. For the reasons stated below, we conclude that businesses that sell rifles and shotguns are not currently required to obtain a license pursuant to Chapter 9 of Title 24 of the Delaware Code.
As a preliminary matter, it is important to appreciate the fact that Delaware law applies different meanings to the term "deadly weapons" in the context of licensing and in the application of the Criminal Code. Under the Criminal Code, rifles and shotguns are within the definition of deadly weapons. See 11 Del. C. Sec. 222 (5)(11); however, for purposes of resolving the licensing issue posed by your request, the relevant definition of deadly weapons is found at 24 Del. C. Sec. 901. This section reads:
No person shall engage in the business of selling any pistol or revolver, or stiletto, steel or brass knuckles, or other deadly weapon made especially for the defense of one's person without first having obtained a license therefor, which license shall be known as 'special license to sell deadly weapons.' No person licensed or unlicensed shall possess, sell or offer for sale any switchblade knife.
This section shall not apply to toy pistols, pocket knives or knives used for sporting purposes and in the domestic household, or surgical instruments or tools of any kind.
The goal of statutory construction is to "ascertain and give effect to the intent of the legislature." Rubick v. Security Instrument Corp., 766 A.2d 15, 18 (Del. 2000) quoting Ingram v. Thorpe, 747 A.2d 545, 547 (Del. 2000). An ambiguous statute is one that is reasonably susceptible to different conclusions. Coastal Barge Corp. v. Coastal Zone Indus., 492 A.2d 1242, 1246 (Del. 1985). The principles of statutory construction guide the interpretation of an ambiguous statute. Newtowne Village Service Corp. v. Newtowne Road Development Co., Inc., 772 A.2d 172, 175 (Del. 2001). Section 901 is reasonably susceptible to different conclusions as to whether long guns are included as "other deadly weapon[s] made especially for the defense of one's person." Because Section 901 is ambiguous concerning its application to long guns, we apply principles of statutory construction.
A relevant principle of statutory construction is that omissions from an express statutory list are deemed excluded from the statute's coverage or application. See Fantasia Restaurant & Lounge, Inc. et al. v. New Castle County Board of Adjustment, 735 A. 2d 424, 430 (Del. Super. 1998). Further, the interpretation of general words that follow an express list in a statute is limited to the content of the list:
[W]here general words follow an enumeration of persons or things, by words of a particular and specific meaning, such general words are not to be construed in their widest extent, but are to be held as applying only to persons or things of the same general kind or class as those specifically mentioned.
Triple C Railcar Service v. Wilmington, 630 A. 2d 629, 631 (Del. 1993) quoting Black's Law Dictionary 464 (5th ed. 1979).
Section 901 specifically requires the licensure of pistols, revolvers, or stiletto, steel or brass knuckles and prohibits the possession or sale of switchblade knives. Shotguns and rifles are neither enumerated in the statute nor are these long guns similar to the weapons specifically listed in the statute. Therefore, we conclude that, based upon the well-established rules of statutory construction described above, the General Assembly did not intend to require persons engaged in the business of selling shotguns and rifles to obtain a license pursuant to Section 901.
In addition to applying the rules of statutory construction, an analysis of the relevant legislative history supports the conclusion that shotguns and rifles are excluded from the licensing requirements of Section 901. The present version of Section 901 was enacted by the General Assembly in 1987 and made changes to the statute not germane to the issue at hand. As part of the legislative debates, however, one of the bill's sponsors was asked whether the licensing requirements of Section 901 applied to those who sold shotguns and rifles. The sponsor responded by stating that a requirement to license shotguns and rifles "wasn't covered" by the section.(1) Statements of legislators made during legislative debates are recognized as a tool in clarifying legislative intent. See Grand Ventures v. Whaley, 632 A.2d 63, 69 (Del. 1993).
Still further support for our conclusion is found in the case of Heatherton v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 593 F. 2d 526 (3d Cir. 1979). While this Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision dealt with a different legal issue (i.e. whether "cartridges" were deadly weapons that could only be sold by licensed dealers), the Court construed the requirements of Section 901 and noted that the parties agreed that a "rifle [is] not a 'deadly weapon' as defined by the section." Id. at 529. By acknowledging the parties' mutual understanding that Section 901 does not include rifles and shotguns in its licensing requirements, the Court implicitly adopted that interpretation. Obviously, had the Court believed the parties' understanding of the law was erroneous it would not have accepted the stipulation.(2)
For the reasons stated, we conclude that Section 901 does not require businesses to obtain a Deadly Weapons License to sell shotguns or rifles.(3) Should you decide to initiate any proposed legislation to require persons selling shotguns or rifles to obtain a Deadly Weapons License under state law, our office is willing to assist with any necessary legislative drafting.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact our office.
Very truly yours,
Government Services Group Leader
Keith R. Brady
Assistant State Solicitor
Malcolm S. Cobin
cc: The Honorable M. Jane Brady, Attorney General
Philip Johnson, Opinion Coordinator
1. DE. H.R. Debates, H.B. 279 (1987).
2. While Section 901 was amended subsequent to the Heatherton decision, the amendments did not modify the relevant language that is the subject of this opinion.
3. This opinion does not address other federal or state statutory or regulatory requirements related to the sale of shotguns or rifles.