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Gubernatorial Candidates Take Aim at New Jersey's Gun-Control Laws

Concealed carry and faster permitting, smart-gun technology and background checks, what do the hopefuls have to say on this controversial subject?

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This story is part of a regular series exploring where the candidates stand on major issues and assessing key considerations in this year’s elections. Follow these links for a look at where the gubernatorial candidates stand on undocumented immigrants and legalizing marijuana; the hottest district races; an overview of the legislative landscape; the candidates’ plans to ease New Jersey’s fiscal crisis; why the Democrats favor single-payer healthcare; and the reasons the Republicans are cool on the ACA replacement bill.

Although it has taken a back seat to issues dealing with taxes and funding, gun control is nevertheless one topic that has elicited strong opinions from the candidates. New Jersey has among the toughest laws in the nation covering a broad range of areas, from background checks to waiting periods to a ban on assault weapons. Some groups and legislators have sought to make these laws even stricter, while other organizations push to relax the rules.

The Republicans in the race have vowed to relax at least some of the state’s gun laws, and generally favor concealed carry and speedier permitting, among other changes. The Democrats typically favor far more stringent laws. One candidate vowed to sign all the gun-control legislation that Gov. Chris Christie has vetoed.

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Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who used to carry a .45-caliber Smith & Wesson as a sheriff, said she would support amending the state’s law to allow for reciprocity for concealed-carry permits from other states. Thus, someone who is licensed to carry a concealed weapon in another state would be also allowed to carry one in New Jersey — without applying for a permit.

“There have been far too many pardons where it comes to the Second Amendment,” she said. “That shows you there is a problem.”

Christie has pardoned at least eight people who were arrested when driving through New Jersey with guns for which they had permits to carry in their home states. State law requires anyone transporting a gun to do so with the weapon unloaded and in a case in the vehicle’s trunk. A number of people have been charged with illegal gun possession when they had a weapon licensed in another state inside the car as an oversight while traveling through the state.

‘The pendulum has swung too far’

“I do think the pendulum has swung too far in New Jersey,” said Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, a Somerset County business owner. “I don’t think people should have to wait five to six months to get a permit.”

He cited a case of a domestic violence victim who was killed by her abusive spouse while waiting for a gun permit to be approved. Ciattarelli said he would “take a reasonable approach to making sure the Second Amendment is observed” in the state.

This is a serious issue for Rogers, who includes a lengthy description of his position on his website to provide “a smooth and clear pathway” to buy guns and carry them.

Non-negotiable

“In my view the Second Amendment of the United States is not negotiable,” said Steve Rogers, a Nutley commissioner and retired police officer. “The right to bear arms is not a privilege as is a New Jersey driver’s license, instead it is an uncompromising right.”

Rogers said that within his first 15 days on the job he would direct all law enforcement agencies to provide concealed handgun license applications immediately on request and post them on their websites and that applications should be processed within 30 days. Anyone denied an application can have an appeal of that decision heard within 15 days and, if the applicant wins, the state will pay all legal expenses and court costs. He would also allow active duty members of the armed forces and retired law enforcement to carry a handgun without a license. And he would have the state enter into reciprocity agreements with all other states for handgun licenses.

Joseph Rudy Rullo, a landscape contractor, said his goal would be to allow New Jerseyans to conceal-carry without justifiable need, using executive orders if necessary. He would appoint pro-Second Amendment Supreme Court justices and a pro-concealed carry attorney general and work to gain GOP control of the Legislature.

“I will present the argument of the change in times with domestic terrorist, shooters, and gangs all carrying illegally regardless of the law — leaving the law abiding sitting ducks,” Rullo stated.

Hirsh Singh, an engineer and business executive, also said he would “protect the Second Amendment” right of citizens to own firearms, carry concealed, and defend themselves.

Where the Democrats stand

Although Democrats typically are known for their support of strong gun laws, the gubernatorial candidates do not all agree that New Jersey needs more regulation of firearms.

As a legislator, Assemblyman John Wisniewski has supported bills requiring more stringent background checks, closing loopholes in gun permitting, and keeping guns out of the hands of those charged with domestic violence.

As governor, “he will push back against any Trump agenda that weakens existing gun laws or restricts the state's ability to make its own laws,” said campaign spokesman Greg Minchak.

Wisniewski plans to commission Rutgers and Seton Hall universities to conduct a state-funded study on gun-related deaths to determine how best to approach it as a public health issue. He also would instruct his attorney general to conduct a buyback program that will reduce the number of guns on the street. And he would encourage and facilitate the phase-in of smart gun technology with research and development funds.

As undersecretary of the U.S. Treasury for Enforcement, Jim Johnson had oversight of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, said Aleigha Cavalier, his campaign’s communications director. He was on site after the mass shooting at Columbine High School and worked with then-Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to “fight the NRA and close the gun show loophole” and helped defend the "Brady Bill," that requires federal background checks on firearm purchases, Cavalier said.

"Jim believes that we need commonsense reforms that will keep guns out of the wrong hands and decrease the escalating epidemic of gun violence causing senseless devastation in New Jersey communities,” she said. “These reforms include universal background check legislation, vetoing any sort of legislative attempt to create concealed carry reciprocity, encouraging gun-safety technology research and implementation, working with neighboring states to stop gun trafficking, and mandating gun safety training for firearm purchasers.”

Eight-point plan

Phil Murphy, the former Goldman Sachs executive who also served as U.S. ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama, has put forth a detailed position on guns, including an eight-point plan to rein in “the gun violence epidemic continues to plague our state and our nation.” He also called the issue of gun deaths a public-health crisis and criticized Christie for blocking “sensible reforms” by vetoing a raft of bills. These included ones that would have kept guns out of the hands of gang members and those convicted of making terroristic threats, further restricted the size of gun magazines, and required retailers to carry at least one personalized smart gun once the technology is available.

“Only the NRA opposes adopting this technology, and in following its lead, Gov. Christie’s hypocrisy shows through: He publicly defends the right to buy seemingly every gun on the market — except the one that will actually keep our children safe,” Murphy stated.

As part of his eight-point plan, Murphy said he would sign every gun-violence prevention bill vetoed by Christie; mandate gun-safety training courses before a firearm purchase; promote smart-gun technology; require the timely reporting of mental illness episodes to the national background-check database to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill; and tax gun sales to fund law enforcement, drug treatment centers, and mental health services.

Sen. Raymond Lesniak, however, said he had no plans to try to further strengthen gun laws, saying “they are already among the strongest in the nation.” He also supports relaxing the penalty for those who truly bring a gun into New Jersey inadvertently, saying “the so-called innocent violator” should not face a mandatory jail sentence if he is licensed in another state and simply was transporting a weapon through New Jersey but did not have it properly stored away.

Bill Brennan, a former fireman and activist who tried to sue Christie over Bridgegate, agrees with Lesniak that New Jersey does not need more gun laws, saying most of the state’s problems with weapons come “from states that resist commonsense legislation such as background checks.” He cited one instance in which he would broaden gun rights: whenever a restraining order is violated, the person under its protection deserves the presumption of having a justifiable need for a concealed carry permit, as long as he is otherwise eligible for a weapon.

“Rich people can hire armed security, the rest of us are left unarmed against credible threats and that is not equitable,” Brennan said.

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