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Opinion: Weak-Kneed GOP Helps Christie Sustain Perfect Record for Vetoes

Republican lawmakers refuse to override governor’s veto on bill that would keep guns out of hands of people with history of mental illness

carl golden
Carl Golden

Should Gov. Chris Christie complete his second term, he’ll leave office in January 2018 with a perfect record: all his vetoes have been sustained.

His shutout was virtually assured by the weak-kneed performance of Senate Republicans in upholding Christie’s conditional veto of legislation designed to keep firearms out of the hands of individuals with a history of mental illness.

Fifty-two times, Democrats have attempted to override gubernatorial vetoes and 52 times Republicans stood united (one or two defections notwithstanding) in support of the governor, no matter the subject matter and no matter their solid support for the legislation when it was originally approved.

If ever there was a gubernatorial veto ripe for an override, it was this one. The legislation’s purpose was clear and unambiguous: Anyone who seeks to expunge a record of mental-health issues to qualify for a firearms purchase permit must notify State Police, the county prosecutor’s office and the local police department. Several Republicans had signed on as co-sponsors and the bill was approved in the Senate 38-0 and in the Assembly 74-0.

The National Rifle Association, which detects gun confiscation conspiracies lurking in any proposal that mentions firearms, was silent. It didn’t apply its usual litmus test or threaten to notify its New Jersey members of which legislators supported the bill so the appropriate retribution could be exacted.

The stars, it seemed, were aligned perfectly.

The governor’s office applied pressure in the form of a message sent through Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. that it wanted the veto sustained and provided a cover story for Republican senators by pledging that at some undefined time in the future the administration would submit an as yet undefined legislative package to overhaul the manner in which the state deals with those suffering mental-health issues.

Christie’s iron grip on his party remained unbroken and, with the exception of two Republican senators who broke ranks, the veto was upheld.

Senate President Steve Sweeney promised to bring the override back to the floor time and again, forcing the issue and, in his view, ratcheting up the pressure on Republican senators who switched their votes.

There may be some short-term public relations benefit in Sweeney’s strategy of accusing Republicans of hypocrisy on an issue as emotional as making it more difficult for individuals with a history of mental instability to obtain a weapon.

He’s unlikely to prevail over the long term, though, particularly in light of Kean’s vow that “Sweeney will not win,” an unmistakable indication that there will be no further defections from the Republican position no matter how often the override is put to a vote.

Whether the Republican unanimity is grounded firmly in party loyalty, the embedded belief that a governor of the same party is deserving of unqualified support, or whether there are legitimate points of policy differences involved, it is impossible to separate the latest episode from Christie’s national ambitions.

In his quest for the presidential nomination, Christie has veered sharply to the right in the ongoing debate over gun-ownership rights, blaming the “crazy liberal Democrats” in the Legislature for attempting to undermine those rights.

At one point during one of his many campaign swings in New Hampshire, Christie even bragged that the Second Amendment to the U. S Constitution -- the right to keep and bear arms -- was “alive” in New Jersey solely because he’s been governor for the past six years. The record and the lack of any administration agenda to ease firearms purchase and ownership restrictions certainly suggests otherwise.

It was inevitable, then, that sustaining the veto would be interpreted by some as merely providing another opportunity for Christie to continue to tell campaign audiences that he blocked yet another attempt to erode gun rights.

He can, at the same time, point out that he intends to recommend a broad program to change the manner in which mental-health issues are addressed as a more appropriate and effective way to prevent unstable individuals from gaining access to weapons.

It was, for instance, the NRA that, in the immediate aftermath of the elementary school massacre in Sandy Hook, CT, nearly three years ago, deflected efforts to implement universal background checks for firearms purchases by arguing that Congress could make better use of its time by focusing on the mental-health treatment system and protocols, rather than punishing and burdening law-abiding gun owners with further restrictions.

Upholding the governor’s veto won’t produce any significant adverse impact on Republican candidates in New Jersey’s Assembly elections this November or in 2017 when Senate seats are on the ballot.

The issue will fade over time and, while it may be brought up in some campaigns, will be largely forgotten, pushed aside by other more urgent matters.

What is virtually assured, though, is that Christie will take his leave of the governor’s office with his record of sustained vetoes intact -- an accomplishment to be praised by some and vilified by others.

There will, however, be a lingering feeling among many that upholding his rejection of the effort to restrict access to weapons by individuals with a history of mental health issues was not the Republican senators' finest hour.

Carl Golden served as press secretary for Republican Gov. Thomas Kean for eight years and as communications director for Republican Gov. Christie Whitman for three years. He is currently a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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