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Assembly Fails to Override Controversial Christie Veto of Gun-Safety Legislation

Four Republicans cross aisle to vote with Democrats, but it's too few to bypass governor's action blocking bill

Credit: Amanda Brown
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto

After failing yesterday in its attempt to join the Senate in overriding Gov. Chris Christie’s veto of a bill that would have made it harder for people with a history of mental illness to buy a gun, the Democrats who control the state Assembly are vowing to try again in the coming weeks.

The bill was originally requested by state court officials concerned about public safety. It passed the state Legislature unanimously before Christie vetoed it, saying he wanted it combined with more mental-health reforms.

The measure seeks to make it tougher for someone with a history of psychiatric commitments to have their record expunged by a judge so they can buy a gun. In order to override the governor, two-thirds of the members of each house must vote in its favor.

Last month, Democrats in the Senate convinced three Republicans to join them in voting for what would be the first successful gubernatorial override in nearly 20 years.

Democrats -- who also control the Assembly but don’t have a veto-proof majority -- needed seven votes from across the aisle yesterday. But most Assembly Republicans reversed their original position on the measure. Once it was clear that the override would fail, Democrats pulled it back before it was officially recorded. Doing so left open the option of posting the override for a vote again.

Now, Democrats say they will keep the pressure on their Republican colleagues. Attention to mass shootings and other gun violence has ramped up in recent weeks in the wake of several massacres, including the latest, which took the lives of 14 people in San Bernardino, CA, on Wednesday.

“I will put this bill back up again and again,” said Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson). “The Republicans who flip-flopped on this commonsense public safety bill should be ashamed and need to look in the mirror, if they can stand it.”

The stakes are high for Christie, who has never been successfully overridden since taking office in early 2010 and has bragged about that perfect record as a presidential candidate. It’s been nearly two decades since a New Jersey governor has suffered a successful override in both houses of the Legislature.

But Democrats are also under pressure because there are only a few weeks left in the current legislative session to secure an override for a measure they view as critical to public safety. An override of Christie’s veto has already prevailed in the Senate, which is also controlled by Democrats.

Even though the Democrats’ margin in the Assembly will widen by four seats in a new legislative session that begins on January 12, failing to score an override in the next few weeks will mean having to start the legislative process for the bill over again.

Lawmakers need 54 votes in the 80-member Assembly to register a veto override, but there were only 51 yesterday. All 47 Democrats in attendance voted in favor, but only four of the chamber’s 32 Republicans did so: Assemblymen Chris Brown (R-Atlantic), Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerset), and Jay Webber (R-Morris), and Assemblywoman Amy Handlin (R-Monmouth).

“Shame on them (meaning the majority of Republicans who reversed their original vote in favor of the bill, but now would not vote to override),” Prieto said, adding he will likely post the override next on Dec. 17. “Hopefully, the next time I get 54 votes,” he said. “Get 54 and get it done.”

The original legislation that Christie rejected over the summer seeks to update a New Jersey law enacted in 2013 that requires the state to provide mental-health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The system is used by firearms dealers to verify whether someone is eligible to buy a gun.

A previous hospitalization in a mental-health institution can be grounds to find someone ineligible to purchase a gun. But New Jersey’s judges can also remove or “expunge” the record of a mental-health commitment from the background-check system if that person is later deemed to be “unlikely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety.”

The measure came out of a state Judiciary recommendation to link judges with police departments, who typically know more about a person’s recent criminal history and whether they have any pending charges. The bill would trigger automatic notification of law enforcement when someone is seeking to have their mental-health record amended for the purposes of buying a gun.

Christie’s conditional veto came just months after the official launch of his presidential campaign, and he’s faced criticism from some in the Republican Party who consider any limitation on gun ownership an infringement of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

A spokesman for Christie yesterday pointed to comments the governor made in the wake of the Senate’s successful override vote in October, including calling for “a broad solution” to the mental-health issue.

During a debate that lasted more than an hour yesterday, many Republicans said they were reversing their votes on the measure because they believed Christie’s approach is more comprehensive and more sensible. They also accused Democrats of playing politics with the override by trying to land a damaging blow to Christie’s reputation in the heat of the presidential election.

“What are we doing here today? Are we really trying to protect and ensure public safety with this particular bill?,” asked Assemblyman Scott Rumana (R-Wayne). “I would urge everybody to just take a step back.”

“We all want to prevent dangerously mental ill people from getting guns,” added Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth). “This bill will not do that. This isn’t the step forward you all want.”

But Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) said it was unfair for Republicans to press for the changes Christie called for in his conditional veto since many were only loosely defined and none had been vetted through the full legislative-hearing process like the original bill.

Other Democrats raised the issue of Wednesday’s mass shooting in California, as well as the looming three-year anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that left 26 dead, including 20 children.

“I didn’t come here for a moment of silence,” said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer). “I came here for a moment of action.”

And Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden) said the bill could go into effect immediately if an override prevails, something that could prevent a future shooting by keeping a gun from getting in the wrong hands. What if a shooting happens in New Jersey under circumstances that could have been prevented by requirements in the bill, she asked.

“It’s on all of us,” she said. “I don’t want to go to bed at night and put my head on my pillow thinking it’s on me.”

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