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Task Force Issues Report on Weapon Laws, Gun Violence

Christie-appointed panel’s proposals draw fire from both sides of issue.

Nearly 50 recommendations, including tougher penalties for violating the state's gun laws, stricter regulation of ammunition and modernization of the gun-permitting process, have been made by a task force charged by Gov. Chris Christie with undertaking a comprehensive review of the state's gun laws and other factors that might contribute to gun violence in New Jersey.

The task force’s report was met with little enthusiasm from those on both sides of the issue. It received lukewarm approval from gun-control advocates who are concerned that its recommendations do not go far enough to address access to firearms. Gun-rights groups remain skeptical of calls for stricter rules.

The NJ SAFE Task Force was appointed in January by Christie following the December school shooting in Connecticut that left 20 children and six adults dead. The task force was led by two former state attorney generals -- retired Supreme Court Justice Peter G. Verniero and John J. Degnan.

Christie said he would hold off approving any changes to current New Jersey gun laws until the report was issued. As a result, Democrats have been accusing him of dragging his feet on the issue as the state Assembly has passed a package of gun-related bills.

Christie's spokesman, Michael Drewniak, issued a written statement saying the governor would "review the report and its recommendations, as well as current legislative initiatives and provide his specific proposals in the next seven to 10 days."

In addition to new gun rules, the task force recommended targeting mental-health services to prevent crises, expanding the school resource officer program used in many districts, and limiting access to violent media, including video games, by teens and children.

The report was issued two days after the accidental shooting of a 6-year-old in Toms River by a 4-year-old friend and shortly after a bipartisan compromise was announced in Washington that would expand federal background checks to cover gun shows and other previously exempted gun sales.

The state link:/stories/13/02/22/spotlight-tv-democrats-guide-package-of-gun-control-bills-through-the-assembly/|Assembly has approved 22 gun-related bills] that include reducing the amount of ammunition a gun magazine can hold, banning Internet sales of ammunition and requiring state pension programs to divest from firearms companies. The legislation has not been scheduled for committee hearings in the Senate.

The report, which was issued via press releases from the governor’s office and Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa, is the product of two months of research, which including public hearings in Camden, Lincroft and Newark. The task force also met with representatives of state agencies and reviewed written submissions from the public and law-enforcement, corrections, education, parole, juvenile-justice, mental-health treatment and substance-abuse counseling professionals, according to the attorney general.

According to the report, the task force opted to leave “engaging in the details of legislative drafting” to others and instead “focused our efforts on gun control recommendations that correlate to certain specific subjects, which include gun violence associated with mental illness and co-occurring disorders, mass shooting events, straw purchasers who facilitate evasion of state gun laws, and the safe and secure storage of firearms to prevent access to lawfully-owned guns by persons in whose hands those weapons would present a clear and present danger.”

The goal, the report said, was “to present the policy justification for why a new law is needed, and to show how the new law is reasonably likely to advance the interests of public safety without creating unreasonable burdens or other unintended but foreseeable consequences.”

That approach, said Bryan Miller, executive director of Heeding God's Call, a four-year-old national faith-based organization that works in New Jersey, led to recommendations best described as "gun violence prevention lite."

Miller, who lives in Haddonfield and was formerly the executive director of Ceasefire NJ, said the report contained "some good recommendations," including tightening of rules limiting child-access to weapons, requiring regular updating and renewal of identification cards, clarifying laws defining straw-purchases and increasing penalties for the purchase of assault weapons.

But far too many issues were not addressed by the report, he said, calling this a glaring oversight, given that the task force was meeting at the same time that the Assembly was holding hearings on the Democrats' legislative package. The legislative priorities -- which include increased penalties for possession of armor-piercing bullets, a reduction of the maximum capacity for ammunition magazines, new firearms safety training and a ban on 50-caliber sniper rifles -- should have been at least mentioned by the task force, he said.

"I don't know how you avoid these things," he said. "They don't have to comment on specific legislation, but you have to make a recommendation on 50-caliber sniper rifles or armor-piercing bullets. You should comment and make a recommendation and then leave the specifics to the Legislature."

He said he could not comment on the other recommendations – such as those targeting violence in the media, including video games – because he is not an expert in those matters. However, he said it was more effective, especially in the short term, to improve the gun laws.

“Tightening gun laws and limiting access to guns, including (by) children, is easier than changing behavior,” he said. “That is the most difficult thing on earth. It takes time to do that. Limiting access to guns is easier.”

Nicola Bocour, executive director of Ceasefire NJ, said the report should help advocates push the governor to support the Assembly’s legislation. The 22-bill Assembly package is "spot on" and would meet all of the goals set forth by the task force.

"If you look at their objectives, we would argue that (the Assembly bills) absolutely do meet those objectives, in particular the reduction in magazine size," she said. "The objective is to reduce mass shootings, and we would argue that is one of best ways to do it."

Bocour does not "oppose any of their objectives," nor does she question a “comprehensive approach” that takes into account mental health, school safety and other issues.

“There are areas where they intersect,” she said.

“We can enact stronger gun laws and provide better resources for mental health support,” she said. “Just because you recognize that mental health is one component doesn't mean you only address that one area. It is not a bad thing to have a comprehensive focus, but it is important to remember that guns are a key part of gun violence.”

Frank Jack Fiamingo, president of the New Jersey Second Amendment Society, a gun-rights group, had not read the report, but said it was under review by the organization.

“In general,” he said, “our requests and our opinion about New Jersey legislation can be summed up in a few simple sentences. All we ask is that when writing legislation that affects people's constitutional rights, all we ask is that you make a clear distinction between the law-abiding and the criminal. None of the Assembly bills laws meet that litmus test.”

“Stop blaming the law-abiding person for crime,” he added. “We all know it is gangs, drugs and poverty and things that government is not addressing that is responsible for the violence. They have been impotent in solving our true crime problem and in resolving the underlying reasons for the crime.”

The New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police also is reviewing the report, but its president, South Brunswick Police Chief Raymond J. Hayducka, says several recommendations are consistent with recommendations made by his group in the past. He said the group supports modernizing the ID cards and the school resource officer program, for instance, providing a way of integrating law enforcement into schools in a positive way.

“It is our opinion that any person carrying a weapon in a school should be a law-enforcement officer,” he said.

The school resource officer program places police officers in local schools, where they help with security, intervene in disciplinary matters and teach students. The three components are designed to both improve safety in schools and to help address cultural concerns, he said.

“The officer is doing law enforcement and security,” he said. “He is doing counseling and intervening before things get bad. And it gets you in the classroom and explains the purpose of law enforcement in a positive way.”

A primary issue with the SRO program and other proposals is cost. Each will require additional police resources, which currently are not available because of tight local budgets.

The task-force report was criticized by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono, who said the governor was using it to avoid dealing with the issue.   “After a brief review of the report, it still neglects three key areas: requiring background checks for private gun sales, it does not limit large magazine sizes and it does not outlaw military-style weapons,” Sen. Buono (D-Middlesex) said in a press release. “Leaders lead. The report punts on a number of issues and we will need legislation that will ensure New Jerseyans’ safety.”

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