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The Politics of Gun Control: Christie Aims for the Center

Democrats, gun control advocates criticize Christie’s inaction compared to Obama, Cuomo

Gov. Chris Christie
Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Gov. Chris Christie

Gov. Chris Christie took a middle road on gun control yesterday that continued his reelection makeover as an apostle of bipartisanship who is “above politics,” as a reasonable alternative to the Republican Right, and as a forceful but compassionate leader willing to take on the powers that be even within his own party.

One day after President Obama called for a national ban on military-style assault weapons that contain magazines with more than 10 rounds of ammunition and universal background checks for gun purchasers, Christie unveiled what he calls his antiviolence strategy.

Noting that New Jersey’s gun laws are the second most restrictive in the nation, after California, Christie said he is creating a bipartisan task force to study the broader issue of violence. Christie asked the commission to come back with recommendations not just on gun control, but on a broader “antiviolence” agenda that includes how to promote school safety, limit violent video games, and address the substance abuse and mental health problems that can lead to mass killings like the Sandy Hill Elementary School shootings in Connecticut.

Christie, who has future national ambitions as well as a gubernatorial reelection campaign this year, has seen his poll numbers soar both locally and across the country since he embraced the Obama administration and chastised Republican House leaders over their actions after Hurricane Sandy. He continued in that vein Wednesday by leveling a sharp-tongued attack on the National Rifle Association for its “reprehensible” ad suggesting that Obama could afford to oppose armed guards in schools because his children have armed Secret Service protection.

Former Democratic Gov. James J. Florio said Christie’s middle-of-the-road agenda is shaped by the awareness that public sentiment in New Jersey is even more strongly in favor of gun control today than it was when Florio championed his groundbreaking assault weapons ban in 1990. In fact, a Fairleigh Dickinson University Poll found that more than three-quarters of New Jersey's registered voters favor greater restrictions on both high-powered guns and high-capacity ammunition clips.

Florio, who received the “Profiles in Courage Award” from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government for his efforts on gun control, noted that it took a coalition of religious leaders, the healthcare community, police and educators – and a flood of calls from moderate Republican women -- to convince a Legislature with veto-proof two-thirds Republican majorities not to strike down the assault weapons ban in 1992.

In deference to the Second Amendment conservatives who make up a sizable bloc of the Republican electorate, Christie refused to comment on Obama’s gun proposals -- even though, as a former U.S. Attorney, he is on record favoring continuation of New Jersey’s 22-year-old assault weapons ban. He said he would await recommendations from his New Jersey SAFE task force headed by two former state attorney-generals -- one Democrat and one Republican -- before devising new policies for New Jersey.

Do the Right Thing

“There are no predetermined outcomes. They will come to me with the best ideas they can find,” said Christie, who promised that he would “try and figure out what the right thing to do is.”

“I’m not worried about anybody on any side of this argument. I’m not worried about the NRA. I’m not worried about the Brady Campaign against gun violence. Or Gabrielle Gifford's. Or any of the other people who are very vulnerable on all sides of this issue.”

Christie’s approach to the gun-control issue infuriated Democratic legislative leaders and gun-control advocates, who regarded the 60-day study commission as an excuse for Christie to put off taking potentially unpopular positions on what has been a major hot-button issue since the governor was an unknown Morris County freeholder more than two decades ago.

“Leaders lead,” asserted Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), who has been emphasizing gun-control issues in her campaign for the Democratic nomination to run against Christie in November.

“We do not need more talk. We need action,” agreed Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver. Democrats in the state Legislature have already introduced a number of bills to tighten New Jersey’s gun laws. “The Assembly will soon be advancing a wide-ranging and responsible package touching upon gun and ammunition safety, mental health care, school security, gun trafficking and other concerns.”

Florio said it was possible that the task force could come up with a serious package of proposals. He praised the selection of former Attorneys General John Degnan and Peter Verniero to head Christie’s task force, and said he would be watching to see if the governor took their recommendations seriously.

“The NRA counts on the public becoming disengaged and uninformed while they try to run out the clock” after a tragedy like the Sandy Hill Elementary School massacre, said Florio.

“Governor Christie really hasn’t taken a whole lot of positions on this issue,” Florio said. “For a lot of us concerned about the positions he might take, that’s a very good thing. He hasn’t done anything bad, so that’s good.”

Florio said he was particularly enthusiastic about Obama’s call for universal background checks for all gun purchasers. “Under the current system, a person who gets turned away at the airport because he’s on the terrorist watch list can buy an assault weapon at a gun show,” he said.

In addition to Degnan, the Attorney General under Democratic Gov. Brendan T. Byrne, and Verniero, who served as both Attorney General and Supreme Court associate justice under Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, the New Jersey SAFE Task Force will include Manuel Guantez, chief executive officer for Turning Point in Paterson, a substance-abuse treatment facility; James Romer, director of services at Monmouth Medical Center; Evelyn Sullivan, managing director of the Daytop New Jersey treatment facility in Pittsgrove; and Brian Zychowski, superintendent of the North Brunswick school district.

Underlying Causes

“If we are truly going to take an honest and candid assessment of violence and public safety, we have to look more deeply at the underlying causes of many acts of violence,” Christie said yesterday. “That means removing the stigma and evaluating issues of mental health, addiction, prevention and treatment services alongside the effectiveness of our firearms laws, enforcement mechanisms, and our school-safety measures.”

The SAFE Task Force, Christie said, would look at issues surrounding guns, addiction, mental health, violence in our cultural products and school safety. He said the task force would look at New Jersey laws, as well as new laws passed this week in New York and elsewhere, and would hold public hearings before issuing its report within 60 days.

“We are taking a holistic, balanced, well-formed approach to address the underlying causes,” the governor said “We have a problem with violence in society,” he said. “It is not confined to one thing that causes it. If we focus on calling this gun control, we are missing out. We have to focus on violence control.”

Nicola Bocour, project director for the Coalition for Peace Action’s Ceasefire New Jersey project, said that the creation of the task force was an important step, but that it was important to recognize that it is gun violence that needs to be addressed.

“This all stems from a conversation on gun violence,” she said. “As state’s leading gun violence prevention organization, it is disappointing that he did not consult with us or any other gun violence organization” before setting up the task force.

Bocour said Ceasefire New Jersey would reach out to the task force and offer its expertise and raise its concerns. She also praised the governor for acknowledging that “we have strong gun laws and that they have made the state a safer place,” but she said there are significant holes that must be plugged.

“Dealing with the current laws in New Jersey is important, but a lot of this conversation should be about what new laws and what new policies should be put in place that will strengthen gun violence prevention.”

She added that the organization hopes that the task force will look at the issue of the 50-caliber rifle – the so-called sniper rifle.

“While we may have a federal assault weapons ban coming,” she said, “we need to ban the 50-caliber rifle. That is designed for military use and has no use in the protection of the home or for hunting,” Bocour said.

She was critical of the 60-day timetable, saying that it took the federal panel less than a month to issue its recommendations.

“We saw the speediness with which Vice President Biden presented his report,” she said. “We think 60 days is too long a period of time to be willing to wait before you are willing to say you are going to take some action.”

Public Health Crisis

Even as the governor was announcing the creation of his task force, Sens. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) and Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) announced that Senate Bill 2430, which declares violence a public health crisis and would create a commission to study its causes and effects, would be the subject of a Senate Law and Public Safety Committee hearing January 28.

“This is about taking a multipronged approach to reducing violence in New Jersey,” Lesniak said. “Whether it’s providing greater access to mental health treatment, leveraging federal funds from the CDC, or advocating on behalf of stricter gun controls along the lines of what President Obama announced yesterday. It’s past time that we incorporate a proactive, comprehensive strategy to keep New Jersey residents safe.”

Christie was not asked about the legislative efforts – eight bills and four resolutions have been introduced in the state Legislature dealing with the regulation of ammunition and gun registration in the past two weeks. And he refused to comment on Obama’s proposals. He said that it was the role of Congress and the president to develop federal gun policy. He said that his responsibility was to ensure the safety of New Jersey citizens.

Christie added that it was important to address the issues surrounding guns and gun violence in a deliberative fashion.

“We cannot and should not let our emotions guide our actions,” the governor said. “Now is not the time for empty rhetoric and the demands of the 24-hour news cycle. This issue is very personal for many people at many levels and our job is to make sure our emotions do not interfere with our work.”

Mark J. Magyar is an editor-at-large for NJ Spotlight.

Hank Kalet is a veteran journalist and editor who has covered economic issues, government, and entertainment in central New Jersey for more than two decades.

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