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Assessing Gun-Control Legislation in New Jersey: A Moving Target

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How are the governor and state Legislature doing in their efforts to curb gun violence?

Gun-control advocates will likely say that Gov. Chris Christie has failed to address a potentially deadly problem, and that the state’s already strong laws need to be tightened to better protect New Jerseyans against the kinds of mass shootings that seem to occur with some frequency, most recently in Washington D.C. and Chicago.

Gun-rights groups may not mention the governor at all, while harshly criticizing Sen. President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), whom they accuse of attacking their rights.

The polls are no more definitive.

In a Monmouth University poll released September 17, 9 percent of respondents gave Christie an A on gun issues; 21 percent gave him a B; 27 percent, a C; 21 percent, a D; and 19 percent, an F (12 percent did not grade him).

And a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released September 18 found that about seven in 10 New Jerseyans are “very concerned” about gun violence, with another 22 percent saying they are “somewhat concerned.”

But here's where it gets tricky.

David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll, said those numbers have to be measured against the relatively small number of New Jerseyans who view crime and drugs as significant issues.

“From the voters' standpoint, this is an important issue only when it rears its ugly head,” he said. “When we hear about these mass shootings, people become more focused but for a briefer and briefer amount of time these days.

“Most people don’t vote on the issue,” he added. “To a great extent people who have voted because they care about this issue are the people who care more about gun owners’ rights than gun control.”

Gun violence grabbed the nation's attention (again) in the wake of the December 14 mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, which took the lives of 20 children and six adults. The shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanz, also killed his mother before the attack. Lanza, who killed himself after the shooting, used a Bushmaster rifle and at least one handgun during the attack.

Connecticut, New York, Maryland and Colorado all passed stricter gun laws in reaction to the shooting, while several states, including Texas, Iowa, and Missouri have moved to loosen state gun laws and exempt themselves from federal provisions. Also, Colorado voters earlier this month recalled two state legislators who backed the stronger gun provisions.

In New Jersey, Assembly Democrats moved quickly to pass new gun control legislation, with more than two dozen bills being introduced in January and 12 passing the full Assembly on February 21.

See the table for a complete breakdown of gun-control bills, passed and pending.

Those bills included a .50-caliber ban, several that were combined with the Senate ID and background checks bill, and a reduction in the maximum size of automatic weapon magazines from 15 rounds to 10.

The Senate moved more deliberately, not acting until May on its own slate of bills.

Overall, 16 bills were passed by both houses and sent to the governor, with 13 becoming law. They include a bans on the transfer of guns to those under 18 and possession by those on the terrorist watch list; the creation of panels to study school security and violence as a mental health issue; and several enhancing penalties for illegal gun possession and the possession of firearms during the commission of a crime.

Most of the bills that passed were consistent with the antiviolence plan the governor unveiled in April. The plan, which was issued a week after a Christie-appointed task force released a report on guns and violence in the state, included harsher sentencing for gun crime, tighter bail rules, the inclusion of mental health records in background checks, a photo identification requirement for firearms purchases, and the banning of .50-caliber weapons.

He also proposed changes in mental-health commitment procedures and more oversight of violent video games. Nothing has been introduced in the Legislature on the mental-health proposals; Assembly Republicans Sean T. Kean (Monmouth) and Holly Schepisi introduced bills (A-3987 and A-3988) on April 4, two weeks before the governor announced his antiviolence plan, that would require parental consent for minors to purchase games labeled Adult or Mature. The bills were referred to the Assembly Consumer Affairs Committee.

The governor’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story, but in an August 8 press release following the signing of 10 gun-related bills, he said the “commonsense measures will both strengthen New Jersey’s already tough gun laws and upgrade penalties for those who commit gun crimes and violate gun trafficking laws.”

In a separate release on August 16, he said he vetoed the .50-caliber ban because it was too broad.

“The bill passed by the legislature seeks to ban a firearm that has reportedly never been used in a crime in New Jersey,” he said. “It imposes criminal liabilities on all current owners of these firearms, including those who believed that they had properly registered their guns with law enforcement. This bill purports to curb gun violence, when in reality the overly broad classification of firearms it calls for banning are lawfully used by competitive marksmen for long-range precision shooting and are not used by criminal interests because of their size and cost, which averages over $10,000 per firearm.”

The Assembly has not scheduled a vote on an override of the .50-caliber ban, and it does not appear an override would be successful. The original bill passed with just 41 votes in the Assembly and 23 in the Senate; 54 Assembly and 27 Senate votes are needed for an override. Sweeney, in an email released through the Senate Democrats’ office, said he would not allow a vote on the rewritten ID bill and does not anticipate an override vote. The final bill passed the Senate with 23 votes and the Assembly with 43 votes.

"I really thought my centerpiece bill to reduce gun violence by overhauling the way New Jersey issues firearms ID cards, was a good bill,” Sweeney said. “The legislation, as written, had real substance and solutions but the governor’s conditional veto eliminated all the value.

“Because of the way it’s been chopped up, I’m not going to agree with the conditional veto. I know I’m not getting the votes for an override. I didn’t even have all the votes from my side. Unless I can craft a bill that he’ll sign, there’s no sense in pursuing an override.”

Gun-rights groups praised the governor and criticized the Senate president.

"After seven months of intense battle over misguided legislation that won't stop another crime or prevent another tragedy, we are grateful that Gov. Christie finally ended the discussion on the worst of the bills by tossing them onto the scrap heap where they belong,” Scott L. Bach, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs, said in an email. “The vetoes put gun-banning politicians on notice that exploiting tragedy to advance an agenda against legal gun owners, instead of punishing violent criminals, will not be entertained."

Frank Jack Fiamingo, president of the New Jersey Second Amendment Society, said New Jersey laws already were too strict and that they turn law-abiding gun owners into criminals.

“There is actually no ability to exercise the right to keep and bear arms in the state of New Jersey,” he said in an email. “Anyone who tells you differently is misinformed. The Second Amendment to the Constitution protects the rights of individuals to both keep and bear arms, yet in NJ here is no ability to exercise the right to bear arms at all. The exercise of that right is banned. Therefore, New Jersey is not in compliance with the highest law of the land -- the United States Constitution.”

The registration process, he said, is already very detailed and lengthy and that applying for permit to carry requires you to prove “justifiable need,” which he says is too high of a standard.

”In the courts of New Jersey, justifiable need has been misinterpreted as requiring an imminent threat to your life,” he said. “Self-defense, or protection of your family while traveling is not sufficient reason. A family traveling through cities like Newark, Trenton, Camden, Elizabeth, Linden, and so on, have no protection against carjacking or kidnapping except for dialing 911 on the cellphone the criminals just stole.”

His organization is committed to removing Sweeney from office and to replacing him “with a leader who understands basic human rights.”

Gun-control groups said the bills that have been signed are good bills, for the most part, but they say the three most important bills remain in limbo: The .50-caliber ban, the omnibus ID bill and the lower cap on magazine rounds.

“The governor, himself, proposed the .50-caliber ban in his plan in April, It is extraordinary weapon that is incredibly lethal,” said Nicola Bosour, director of Ceasefire NJ. “To me it is an unconscionable choice to allow those to be bought and sold in New Jersey.”

She called the lower cap on magazine “vitally important,” and said Ceasefire was “disappointed that the Senate did not act on that one.”

The magazine cap -- Assembly bill A-1329 -- passed the Assembly 45-30. The Senate version, S-2475, sponsored by Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Nia Gill (D-Essex), was referred to the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee and has not been considered because it is opposed by Sweeney, who as Senate president controls the flow of legislation in the upper house.

A similar bill, S-2630, introduced in the Senate by then-Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) and Joseph Vitale (D-Woodbridge), also was referred to the Law and Public Safety Committee.

Bocour said the governor’s vetoes show that he is looking ahead to the 2016 presidential race and focusing on “the gun industry’s money.”

Redlawsk of Eagleton said he thought the governor’s political team, if not the governor himself, is probably looking ahead to a potential presidential run. That is why the governor has tried to straddle the line on the gun issue. He has to consider the national Republican base, which is very much pro-gun rights, while also acknowledging that New Jersey has been a heavily Democratic state in recent years.

“In Christie’s case, in particular, when think of a Republican governor in New Jersey, he has to be careful not to be viewed as right wing,” he said. “But the folks who are most concerned about gun control are not voting for Christie anyway. It is a smaller group on the gun control side that is voting because of that. It frees him up to take positions with little risk and he can placate the base that he absolutely needs.”

Christie, for his part, describes his efforts as the responsible approach to gun violence, as he did in a September 20 press release announcing the signing of bill A-3797. The bill, which he conditionally vetoed in August, codifies reporting requirements for recovered firearms.

“I’m glad the Legislature acted swiftly to incorporate my commonsense changes so that I can sign this bill and responsibly strengthen New Jersey’s already-tough gun laws,” he said. “This new law will help state and federal law enforcement officials stop guns from getting into the hands of criminals, and help maintain public safety.”

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