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Democratic Gun-Reform Package No Sure Shot

Christie's political ambitions could mean veto if governor wants to appeal to national Republican primary voters.

Democrats say the multibill gun-reform package they are poised to send to the governor’s desk can be a model for other states, but there are no guarantees that it will become law.

That’s because it remains unclear whether Gov. Chris Christie's potential national ambitions might cause him to take a more conservative stance on gun laws than he has in the past. If he does, it could result in him vetoing or conditionally vetoing the legislation.

Christie, a former U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, has endorsed an assault-weapons ban in previous political races and is on record supporting a state one-gun-per-month limit.

Academics who study New Jersey politics said the gun issue has a low profile and is unlikely to affect statewide races. If the governor has national aspirations, however, his calculations are likely to include Republican primary voters, who are far more conservative than those in New Jersey.

At the same time, the Democrats are not completely in sync on the legislation. Assembly leaders are pressing to reduce the maximum size of ammunition clips from 15 to 10 rounds. That limit has the backing of likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono and has been introduced in the upper house by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex). It is opposed by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who has refused to post the legislation or a vote.

The Democratic centerpiece legislation (A-3772/S-2723 is scheduled for a vote in the state Senate on May 30. It would expand background checks to virtually every gun buyer in the state; streamline the ID card system and use existing technology to make the checks instantaneous; require safety training for those seeking permits; revoke gun permits at sentencing for those convicted of a crime or for those ordered into involuntary mental health commitment; and crack down on trafficking.

“We put together a real package of reform,” Sweeney said. “Other states are going to be looking at what we did and saying this is what we want ours to look like.”

Three bills already have passed both houses of the state Legislature, including one expanding reporting requirements for firearms-related crimes, and have been forwarded to the governor. A fourth, requiring mental health records to be submitted to the National Instant Criminal Backgrounds Check System, passed both houses but was amended by the Assembly and requires a second Senate vote slated for Thursday, along with a vote on nine other Senate bills intended to curb gun violence.

Four of the bills on Thursday’s schedule have already been approved by the Assembly and, if passed by the Senate, will go to the governor for consideration. They would:

  • ban .50-caliber weapons (A-3659/ S-2178). These weapons, initially developed for military snipers, are accurate up to 2,000 yards and gun-control advocates say their shells can pierce a commercial airplane.

  • prohibit investment of state pension and annuity funds in companies that manufacture, import, or sell assault firearms for civilian use (A-3668/S-2467/2471).

  • ban the issuance of gun permits to those on the federal terrorist watch list (A-3687/ S-2485).

  • exempt personal firearms records -- including the firearm ID information and permits to purchase -- from the state Open Public Records Act (A-3788/S-2552).

Four other bills -- S-2801, which would extend the statute of limitations for gun theft; S-2804, which would upgrade unlawful possession of firearms to a first-degree crime; S-1279, which would make transfer of a weapon to someone who is under the age of 18 a second-degree crime; and S-1133, which requires that anyone charged with a gun crime pay their bail in cash -- have not been heard by the Assembly. They are part of a Senate push to enhance penalties for gun violence and gun crime, Sweeney said.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver called Monday’s passage of the three antiviolence bills “a key step toward the Assembly's goal of a safer New Jersey.”

The Governor's Not Talking

Gov. Christie would not comment on the specifics of the legislation. He unveiled his own set of proposals in April, a week after a task force he appointed outlined what it said should be the state’s antiviolence priorities.

The governor’s plan included expanding background checks, modernizing the firearms identification card, increasing mental health screenings and requiring those who need help to get treatment, requiring more parental oversight over videogame purchases, increasing criminal penalties for gun-related crimes, and reforming bail laws.

Much of the governor’s plan was based on the task force report, but the task force made several recommendations that the governor did not address, including requiring gun-safety training for everyone who gets a firearm ID and mandating that New Jersey participate with all interjurisdictional reporting systems. Both are included in the Democratic legislation.

Several of the governor’s priorities – such as the need to modernize the firearms ID and expand background checks -- are covered by Senate and Assembly legislation. Others, like his call for expanded mental health screenings or his belief that cultural violence needs to be addressed, are not included in the gun bills.

The governor will have 45 days to review any bill that passes and then either sign it into law, conditionally veto it. or veto it outright.

“As we've said all along, we would be looking at all ideas, including legislation and our own recommendations to find the proper balance that considers violence, mental health, and where any strengthening of gun laws was appropriate or necessary,” said Michael Drewniak, the governor’s spokesman.

The Senate and Assembly bills have been moving forward on different tracks. Much of the Assembly package was introduced in early January, with 22 bills being passed by the Assembly in mid-February. The Senate moved more slowly, introducing much of its legislation in April.

While there is significant overlap between the Senate and Assembly package, one element favored by gun-control groups and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono appears stalled -- a reduction in the maximum size of an ammunition clip or magazine from 15 rounds to 10 rounds. That legislation – A-1329 -- passed the Assembly 45-30 on February 21, but does not have the support of Sweeney.

The senate president said reducing the size of the magazine is not an effective way to cut down on violence, because ammunition clips are relatively easy to modify, and shooters, like those in Newtown, CT, and Aurora, CO, carried multiple firearms. The size of the ammunition clips was not a factor.

The magazine restriction “gives people a sense of false hope,” Sweeney said

“Someone who is going in to hurt people is not going to worry about the limit,” he said. “They are going to modify it and have 30 rounds.”

Oliver, however, said the Assembly remained committed to the lower magazine limits. She said in a press release on Monday that the lower chamber’s “work is far from done.”

“I look forward,” she said, “to giving final legislative approval to more commonsense gun-violence prevention bills in the weeks ahead, all while continuing our effort to get a bill limiting ammunition magazine capacity into law."

The Last Word

Regardless of what gets through the Legislature, the governor is going to have the final word.

“I have no idea what the governor is going to do,” Sweeney said. “But we did things that they couldn’t get done in Washington. We got background checks on all weapons sales -- 40 percent were private sales before that did not require checks, but now we will have background checks on all sales. I would hope that the governor would take a hard look at it.”

While several bills passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities, most were approved in both houses with few Republican votes. That, said Sweeney, might lead observers “to think that the governor and his guys are not on same page or that there are going to be vetoes.”

Political scientists who study New Jersey said the traditional political calculus that governs national gun-control debates and votes carries little weight here. Gun control is popular, but it is not considered a priority and is likely to have little impact on the upcoming gubernatorial race. That means that the political stakes for the governor in New Jersey are low for reelection but could be high when it comes to a Republican primary race for president.

Christie, who has favored tighter gun rules in the past, has advocated taking a “holistic approach,” which would include improving mental health services and addressing the cultural causes of violence.

Although Christie has said repeatedly that being governor is his top priority, and he has not announced an intention to run for higher office, he has a very high national profile. If he is considering a run, he will need to win over very conservative primary voters who view gun restrictions unfavorably.

Patrick Murray, director of the Polling Institute at Monmouth University, said the governor already has a history of supporting some restrictions on guns.

“There is no way he can go back on that,” he said. “His stock in trade is that you know what he means when he says it.

“So, he is not going to be the NRA’s candidate, but he doesn’t want to sign anything too far outside of what the NRA would find acceptable,” he added. “He’s hoping that once the dust clears, he is not tainted in such a way that the NRA would back away from him.”

David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University, agreed. The gun issue barely registered when Eagleton asked potential voters to list the most important issues facing the state.

“It wouldn’t surprise me to see him taking a conservative position [on the gun bills],” Redlawsk said. “I don’t see it affecting him much this fall, but it would position him for the national Repbublican Party.”

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for Politics at Rider University in Lawrence, said these considerations are not enough to predict how the governor will act on the gun bills.

“What I can say is that the governor is trying to find a middle ground here between his potential national Republican constituency, many of which want to see no new efforts on gun control, and the politics of his home state of New Jersey.”

"While New Jersey voters support gun control, they also know that the state has one of the toughest gun laws in the country," he said. "That makes gun-law reform less of an issue."

“There are certain issues that he does not have to deal with specifically, because they already have been dealt with in the past,” Dworkin said.

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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