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Dems Ask Court to Block Christie’s Change to Handgun-Carry Permit Rules

Lawmakers say rule change loosens permit process and rides roughshod over the Legislature. Governor says his administration will prevail

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State lawmakers have gone to court in an attempt to block Gov. Chris Christie’s administration from modifying New Jersey’s handgun-carry permit process without getting approval for the change from the Legislature.

The lawsuit filed in the Superior Court’s Appellate Division was announced yesterday by Democratic legislative leaders. It follows votes last month in both the Assembly and Senate that approved court action against the Republican governor to enforce what lawmakers believe are rights that only they have under the state constitution to write the state’s gun laws, which are some of the toughest in the nation.

If the lawsuit is successful, it will reverse the Christie administration’s attempt to change the “justifiable need” standard that’s required to obtain a handgun-carry permit in New Jersey. The state has required there to be a "specific threat" or previous attacks that pose a special threat to the life of the applicant, but the change would allow the applicant to instead make the case they face circumstances that amount to a “serious threat,” without a threat directed specifically at them. The change was scheduled to go into effect yesterday, but the lawsuit, which was filed on Friday, seeks a stay of the new standard.

Lawmakers prevailed in court against the Christie administration late last year in a similar case that involved changes to civil-service rules that the administration tried to enact without legislative approval. The case exercised a little known clause in the state constitution that allows lawmakers to nullify changes made by the executive branch through regulation if they declare the changes conflict with legislative intent.

Christie: ‘... we’ll fight them’

Christie’s office declined comment on the filing of the handgun-permit suit yesterday, instead referring to statements the governor made during a recent radio interview, when he predicted his administration would ultimately prevail. “They’re wrong and we’ll fight them,” Christie said on NJ 101.5 FM.

Christie announced last month that the regulatory change to the handgun-carry permit process was pending at the close of a 60-day public-comment period. The change would make it easier for those applying for a handgun in New Jersey to demonstrate a “justifiable need” to arm themselves, with the burden no longer just a “specific” threat faced by the person seeking the permit but also a “serious” threat. The new standard was proposed by a special commission Christie put in place in 2015, just before he announced his candidacy for the GOP’s presidential nomination — an unsuccessful effort that saw the second-term Republican move to the right on several issues, including gun rights, in a bid to appeal to more GOP voters.

After the Christie administration first moved to enact the handgun-carry permit change without legislative approval, Democratic leaders in both the Assembly and Senate proposed resolutions seeking to block the administration from adopting the change by only modifying state regulation. The measure passed the Senate and the Assembly last year, in October and December, respectively. Last month, after Christie’s administration moved ahead anyway, the two houses voted in favor of a new resolution that formally authorized legislative leaders to sue the executive branch.

The lawsuit argues that the Division of State Police is relying on a single line from a nearly 50-year-old case to establish the grounds for changing the justifiable-need standard.

Trying ‘to put more handguns on the street’

“In other words, the Division is attempting to put more handguns on the street based on a faulty interpretation of an old case applying a different statute,” the suit says.

“To make matters worse, the attempted change is being stubbornly advanced over the vehement objection of a Legislature that has passed no less than three resolutions explaining that the proposed change is contrary to legislative intent,” the suit says. “A result so absurd should not be allowed.”

The suit also cites an amendment to the state constitution that was approved by voters in 1992 that allows lawmakers to strike down regulatory changes if they conflict with legislative intent. Lawmakers used the same legal process to overturn a rule adopted by Christie’s administration in 2014 that sought to make it easier for department heads to promote state employees by putting them in similar “job bands” instead of using competitive testing. The latter has been a hallmark of the civil-service system in New Jersey.

The Appellate Division vacated the Christie administration’s action on the job-banding issue in a decision released late last year.

In addition to saying his administration would ultimately prevail on the handgun-permit issue, Christie also suggested on 101.5 FM radio that lawmakers did not follow the proper procedure this time around as they sought to flex their powers under the 1992 constitutional amendment. But the suit spells out what the procedure is and explains in detail how the Legislature took pains to comply with it.

“The Executive Branch is obviously wrong,” the suit says.

After the resolution authorizing the legislative leaders to take Christie to court passed the Assembly last month, Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) said the effort wasn’t just about enforcing the strict gun laws that New Jersey lawmakers have written.

“It was about being a coequal branch of government,” Prieto said. “We are a coequal branch of the government and now we are going to a different branch of the government, the Judiciary.”

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