Critics Argue Christie’s Gun-Violence Plan Needs More Focus on Guns

Hank Kalet | April 22, 2013 | More Issues, Politics
For Democrats, the problem isn't what the governor's plan includes, the real issue is what it leaves out

Gun control advocates and leading Democrats say an anti-gun-violence plan issued by Gov. Chris Christie on Friday may contain worthwhile proposals, but it does not focus enough on guns themselves.

The plan, which the governor dubbed “Keeping New Jersey Safe,” would build on the state’s “already strong guns laws” by expanding background checks; modernizing the state’s firearms identification card; expanding mental health options by increasing screening and requiring those who need help to get treatment; requiring more parental oversight over videogame purchases, increasing criminal penalties for gun-related crimes; and reforming bail laws.

Christie, in a press conference on Friday, called his proposal a “comprehensive and responsible plan” designed to address “some of the root causes” of gun violence in the state.

The set of proposals comes a week and a half after a task force appointed in January by the governor issued its recommendations. The governor said many of his recommendations were modeled on the task force report.

“This is about violence control,” he said. “In order to deal with the kind of violence we are seeing we must address the many different contributing factors to that violence.”

Critics say a 22-bill package passed by the state Assembly earlier this year is more comprehensive. The legislation, approved by the Assembly February 21, includes provisions to reduce the maximum capacity of ammunition magazines to 10 rounds, require face-to-face transactions for ammunition sales and transfers, ban .50-caliber weapons, modernize ID requirements, and prohibit state pension money from being invested in firearms companies.

“We will certainly take a close look at [Christie’s] proposals,” Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) said in a press release Friday. “As the governor said, the Assembly has already passed an antigun violence package and that should be considered in concert with the plans laid out today. If there are some worthwhile concepts we will certainly consider them. My concern with the governor’s plan at this point is not so much what’s in it, but what may not be.”

The Senate introduced a package of gun-control bills on April 15 that called for a new electronic system for instant background checks, a photo ID for purchases, revocation of gun permits at criminal sentencing and for those ordered into involuntary commitment, a prohibition on ammunition purchased by those with criminal convictions, mandatory safety training to obtain a permit, a ban on .50-caliber weapons, a crackdown on straw purchases, and updated penalties for gun trafficking.

Nicola Bocour, director of Ceasefire NJ, a gun-control advocacy group, said the Assembly package was more comprehensive, because it “deals with the gaps we do have” and does a better job of meeting the objectives of the governor’s antiviolence task force than does the governor’s own proposal.

“New Jersey does have strong gun laws but it doesn’t mean you knowingly allow there to remain gaps,” she said. “We literally are talking about life and death. It is really important that any comprehensive package include more than what was included in [the governor’s] initial package.”

The Four Points of the Plan

The governor divided his plan into four separate areas: gun laws, mental health, media, and general reform of criminal law. His primary focus was on law enforcement, including the establishment of new criminal statutes and enhancing penalties for existing violations.

These would include new bans on selling firearms to convicted criminals, possessing firearms with the intent to transfer them to those ineligible to own firearms, “straw purchasing” or buying guns or ammunition for someone else, and prohibiting those who are banned from owning firearms from buying and possessing ammunition. He also called for imposing a mandatory 25-year sentence on those convicted of firearms trafficking and strengthening penalties for tampering with or falsifying information for firearms documents and for allowing children or those disqualified from legally possessing firearms to get their hands on guns.

“Most of the debate surrounding this issue, in my view, should be about how we deal with criminals,” he said. “Legal gun owners in this country don’t commit crimes with their firearms. They play by the rules. And they do it the right way and they comply with the law.”

The target, he says, should be those who commit crimes with guns and those who sell guns to those convicted of crimes or act as straw-purchasers.

“Because New Jersey has such stringent gun laws, when [guns] do get onto the streets, they are almost always from other states,” he said. “They are trafficked illegally into this state.”

The governor also wants to impose bail restrictions on those convicted of firearms offenses.

“If you’re really serious about stopping gun violence, you need to keep the people who commit gun violence in jail,” he said.

The governor said that the state’s gun laws, already “considered the second toughest in the country,” should be strengthened. But,, he added, it is important to remember that New Jersey already has an assault weapons ban, a seven-day waiting period for firearms purchases, the third-strictest magazine-capacity rules in the country, and a one-gun-a-month law. That is legislation that few states can match, he said.

His proposals include banning future purchases of the Barrett .50 Caliber or similar weapons; requiring “adjudicated mental health records” to be included in instant background checks; and requiring a “valid government photo ID,” in addition to mandatory Firearms Purchaser Identification Card, for those seeking to purchase guns.

Looking Beyond Guns

But the focus of the state’s efforts, he said, needs to be on more than guns.

“Too many times, when there are instances of unspeakable tragedy, the question is how such tragedy could have been prevented,” he said. “It is impossible to predict violence with certainty, but we can take steps to give mental-health professionals and the courts a greater ability to mandate treatment that current standards do not sufficiently provide for, while providing greater flexibility in terms of the type of care that is offered.”

The proposed changes include rewriting the standards for involuntary commitment to make it easier to commit dangerous people, clarifying the definition of various mental health disorders, and simplifying the screening for and treating of mental health illness, so the court and mental-health professionals can remove dangerous people from the streets.

The governor also is calling for new training for first responders on mental-health issues, to educate them on how best to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations involving the mentally ill.

He also wants to simplify the process for stripping firearm eligibility from those who have been involuntary committed and make it easier for people to voluntarily surrender their firearms during times of crises.

“I believe that together these changes will ensure that those in need of care will be enabled to afford it and are quickly and comprehensively treated by state healthcare facilities,” he said. “We know that every one of these incidents of mass shootings have involved people that were deeply disturbed and not receiving treatment either on an in-patient or an out-patient basis.

“We need to make sure that these people are treated, [that we] lower the stigma that is associated with that treatment and, where appropriate, for that treatment to be aggressive and inpatient if necessary, not only to make sure that their treatment is swift and intense but to take them off the streets before they can commit an act of violence against a fellow citizen.”

He also wants to target the impact of the media, in particular “violent videogames,” he said, by requiring parental consent to purchase videogames rated by the industry as containing adult or mature content and requiring retailers to post ratings and policies on videogame sales.

“Oftentimes lost in the debate about controlling gun violence is the almost constant exposure that young children have to graphic violence in the media,” he said. “We can raise awareness about the level of the violence in videogames by educating parents and actively engaging them in the purchase of these games, similar to the way that children under the age of 18 cannot go to an R-rated movie without being accompanied by an adult.”

The governor said he would review any legislation that came to his desk, but he did not include many of the Assembly provisions because they were not addressed by the task force.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-Union) called Christie’s proposals “prudent.”

“Certainly, mental heath screening and treatment services must be part of the equation as must the regulation of videogames, as studies have shown a correlation between the games and aggressive behavior,” he said in a statement on Friday.

The New Jersey Psychological Association said the mental health components of the governor’s package seemed, on initial review, to be an improvement over the current system. The “idea of expanding access,” said Sean Evers, NJPA president, can lead to a “proactive solution, instead of waiting for the crisis and then having a retroactive fix.”

“If look at the bigger topic of violence, it has many other aspects aside from guns,” he said. “It is not just the disaster in Newtown. It is the thing that happened in Boston the other day. It is domestic violence. It is the violence between students. We can make a linkage. Those things are linked together.

When violence is part of someone’s life, then “violence becomes part of their solution,” he said, adding, “The guns are a part of that, but they are just one part.”

Bocour agreed that addressing violence, generally, is important. Ceasefire, she said, is not taking a position on the mental health provisions because they are outside of the organization’s expertise. However, she said the most pressing aspect of the debate is that gun violence “is particularly out of control.”

“It is what motivated the formation of the task force,” she said. “It is what is motivating states across the country to pass new laws. We cannot forget that guns are a key component of gun violence and that we need an approach that deals with that aspect of it.”

Oliver agreed. She said she was concerned with the governor’s “notion that ‘most of the debate surrounding this issue should be about how we deal with criminals.’”

“While I don’t disagree that we need to have the strictest penalties in place for those who commit gun crimes, the fact of the matter is that dealing with these criminals is what happens after 20 schoolchildren are killed or after a movie theater is shot up,” she said. “We need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to prevent getting to that point, period.”

Bocour said Ceasefire supports the three “gun-focused elements” of the governor’s plan, but noted that they’re not enough.

“That’s not a comprehensive package,” she said. The governor, she argued, ignored key elements of reform, including required gun-safety training for everyone who gets a firearm ID, a ban on magazine clips that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition, and requiring that New Jersey participate with all interjurisdictional reporting systems.

“We have to look at the real guns that we are allowing to get into real people’s hands and not focus on the fake guns in videogames,” she added. “The focus should be, when we are talking about gun violence, it should be on guns.”