As the tragic mass shooting in Charleston once again revives the national debate over gun laws, legislators in New Jersey — which has some of the strictest gun regulations in the country – are focusing on the specific issue of domestic violence and firearms.
Bills that would increase penalties for convicted abusers and include new offenses under the definition of domestic abuse — are working their way through the Legislature, apparently with bipartisan support.
But two other pieces of legislations are predictably pitting advocacy groups against each other. While advocates and lawmakers agree that there should be that the all-important goal is ensuring the safety of victims, how that should be accomplished is what’s being debated.
Pro-gun groups are calling a Democratic proposal (S- 2886), which would make it easier to take away guns from abusers, an infringement on gun rights that punishes those accused but not necessarily convicted of domestic violence.
The bill is supported by gun-control groups and advocates for domestic-violence victims, who say the best way to keep victims safe is to keep guns out of the hands of abusers.
A Republican proposal, which would give priority review to domestic-abuse victims seeking gun permits, is supported by gun groups and opposed by the gun-control community.
Sponsors of the two bills, however, say the legislation should not be viewed as competing efforts, and that both could be part of a larger effort to protect victims from their abusers.
The Democratic proposal is being sponsored in the Senate, where it cleared the Law and Public Safety Committee with a unanimous vote, by state Sens. Loretta Weinberg (Bergen), Nia Gill (Essex) and Nilsa Cruz-Perez (Camden). The Assembly version (A-4218) is being sponsored by Democrats Gabriela Mosquera (Camden), Louis Greenwald (Camden), Joseph Lagana (Bergen), Dan Benson (Mercer), Pamela Lampitt (Camden) and Valerie Vainieri Huttle (Bergen), and has cleared both the Law and Public Safety and Appropriations committees.
The bill would require the subject of a domestic-violence restraining order or someone convicted of a domestic-violence offense to surrender all firearms and firearm identification cards and permits while a restraining order is in effect.
“What it does is it sets up a process for removing guns that are already in household,” Weinberg said. “A women is 500 times more likely … to be killed, if there is a gun in the house. The first thing we want to do is remove guns from people who are potentially, who are the abusers.”
Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth), one of the sponsors of the Republican bill, agreed.
“If they have a restraining order against them, it means they shouldn’t have a weapon in their hands,” Beck said. “A restraining order is supposed to keep them from committing acts of violence.”
The Republican bill is expected to be officially introduced next week, possibly on Monday, and will be sponsored by Beck and state Sens. Dawn Addiego (Burlington) and Diane Allen (Burlington).
The bill would require municipalities to make processing requests from residents protected by a restraining order a priority. Under current law, towns have 30 days to review and issue permits, though many do not do so within that time frame and there are no penalties to ensure that all permits are issued within that time frame, Beck said. Under the proposed law, she said, all requests from abuse victims would go to the top of the review list.
“If you know your boyfriend or spouse has been threatening you and you are subject to physical abuse and you feel your life’s in jeopardy, I think it’s appropriate to say that we would help you not just with a restraining order, but help them get gun permits,” she said.
Weinberg is prepared to support the GOP bill.
“If a domestic-violence victim decides that she is going to be safer – I might not agree with that action, but the victim has to make that decision,” she said. “If she decides she is going to be safer and the abuser is out of the home and there is a restraining order, under the law she is allowed to apply for a permit. “
The bill is being written in response to the murder of Carol Bowne in Berlin Township on June 4. Bowne was stabbed in her driveway, allegedly by her former boyfriend Michael Eitel. Eitel has been charged with the murder.
Bowne had a restraining order against Eitel, the Courier-Post newspaper reportedd, and had applied for a gun permit more than a month before the murder.
Gun-rights groups protested at the home of Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and at Weinberg’s office during the two weeks after the murder, blaming Bowne’s slaying on the state’s gun laws.
Calls to Scott Bach, executive director of the Association of NJ Rifle & Pistol Associations, and Frank Jack Flamingo, president of the New Jersey Second Amendment Society, were not returned. But Bach previously told NJ.com that Bowne’s “life was tragically taken because of New Jersey gun laws.”
The ANJRPA website outlines the group’s position. The ANJRPA says there are better ways of protecting victims and gun owners and is calling for its members to “support proposals that severely punish those who commit actual physical violence, and that hold accountable anyone who makes false allegations of domestic violence. “
“ANJRPC strongly condemns anyone who commits actual physical violence against a domestic partner, and believes that such a person should not have access to firearms, and should be punished as severely as possible,” the website says. But it t says that federal and state law already provide for this.
The legislation, the group says, “fails to distinguish between those who commit actual physical violence, and those who commit non-violent acts, like annoying a spouse, which the law classifies as ‘domestic violence’ nevertheless.”
[related]The New Jersey Coalition for Battered Women responded to requests for comment by re-issuing a written statement it initially released following Bowne’s murder. In the statement, the organization called for passage of the Democratic bill and questioned the potential effectiveness of expedited permits for victims.
“Although Carol’s story does not directly relate to the current New Jersey domestic violence legislation under review in committee,” Executive Director Jane Shivas said in the statement, “her story does remind us all that we need to do more to protect women and families in New Jersey.”
The Democratic bill, the statement said, “fixes a loophole that currently allows domestic abusers to keep guns they already own – guns that they often use to (do) harm.”
“We will never know whether Carol would be alive today if she had received her gun permit and purchased a gun,” Shivas said in the statement. “We do know that that the presence of guns in a home in which there is domestic violence significantly increases the risk of lethality.”
Bryan Miller, director of the gun-control organization Heeding God’s Call, said efforts to ease access to guns for anyone are dangerous. He said he supports the Democrat’s bill, but has concerns about the other.
“People who think acquiring a handgun is going to make them safer are making a huge mistake,” he said. “All evidence points to the fact that if you possess a handgun there is increased danger for yourself and everyone around you. Whatever happens with this legislation, the prudent thing for anyone is to not purchase a handgun for self protection.”
He cited a report issued June 17 by the Violence Prevention Center in Washington that found that there were “only 259 justifiable homicides involving a private citizen using a firearm” nationally in 2012, amounting to a little more than 3 percent of the 8,342 criminal gun homicides tallied the same year. None of the justifiable deaths occurred in New Jersey, according to the report, and only six justifiable homicides have been recorded between 2008 and 2012.
“In 2012, for every justifiable homicide in the United States involving a gun, guns were used in 32 criminal homicides,” the report says. “And this ratio, of course, does not take into account the tens of thousands of lives ended in gun suicides or unintentional shootings that year.”
Those numbers should make people thinking about buying ing a gun for self-defense reconsider, Miller said.
“Too many women in America who suffer from domestic abuse end up being killed by their partner with guns,” he added. “It is the overwhelming way they lose their lives, and anything that can make it safer for them is an improvement.”