Every Republican in the state Senate voted with the Democrats seven months ago for a measure that seeks to prevent mass shootings in New Jersey by changing the rules for those who’ve previously been committed to a mental-health institution but now want to buy a gun.
But Gov. Chris Christie, in the glare of a 2016 GOP presidential primary campaign in which gun-control continues to be a hot-button issue, rejected the bill over the summer, saying in a conditional-veto message that he favors more comprehensive mental-health reforms.
Now, Democrats who control the Senate but do not hold a veto-proof majority are planning to hold a vote this afternoon to try to override Christie’s veto.
The vote will put Senate Republicans — just three weeks after a student at a community college in Oregon shot and killed a professor and eight other students — in the position of having to choose between backpedaling on their original votes or defying their GOP governor.
If they choose to override, it would be the first time since Christie took office in early 2010.
“We’re bringing up a bill that every single member of the Senate voted ‘yes’ to,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who called for today’s override vote.
“This is something that every single one of us voted for,” said Sweeney (D-Gloucester).
The legislation would update a law Christie enacted in 2013 that requires the state to provide mental-health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
The background-check system is used by firearms dealers to verify whether someone is eligible to buy a gun.
A previous commitment to 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 a person is later deemed to be “unlikely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety.”
The new legislation, sponsored by Sen. Fred Madden (D-Gloucester), would trigger automatic notification of law enforcement when someone is seeking to have their mental-health commitment record amended for the purposes of buying a gun. The bill came out of a state Judiciary recommendation to link judges with police departments, who typically know
more about a person’s more recent criminal history and whether they have any pending charges.
“This is something that was requested by the court system,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen).
But Christie, in his veto message from August, said passing the Democrats’ bill would contribute to “patchwork proposals and fragmented statutes that add further confusion to an already cumbersome area of law.”
Christie called for “a comprehensive set of solutions,” saying that approach would “build safer communities and ensure that individuals with mental illness get the treatment they need.”
His conditional veto proposed new standards for involuntary commitments, involuntary outpatient treatment, transfers between involuntary inpatient and outpatient treatment, and better training for first-responders. It would also require “a person previously involuntarily committed to mental health treatment to demonstrate adequate medical evidence of suitability to obtain a firearms purchaser identification card.”
Christie’s veto came just months after the official launch of his presidential campaign, and as he’s faced criticism from some in the Republican Party who consider any limitation on gun ownership an infringement of rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They frequently cite Christie’s prior support as a state Assembly candidate of a federal assault-weapons ban, a position he has since changed.
Poll results follow party lines
A national survey conducted earlier this month by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll soon after the Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon showed the gun-violence issue continues to divide Americans along party lines.
When asked whether better regulations or more people carrying guns would do more to help reduce the number of mass shootings, 59 percent of adults said they favored better regulations. But 59 percent of Republicans said carrying more guns is the better preventative measure, while 82 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of independents cited better regulations.
Dan Cassino, a FDU political science professor and an analyst for the PublicMind Poll, called gun regulation “a potent symbolic issue” for both parties.
“For Democrats, it’s a common sense solution to a real problem,” Cassino said. “For Republicans, it’s a sign of government overreach and a threat to civil liberties.”
NJ Spotlight asked its readers in a poll earlier this month to weigh in on New Jersey’s gun laws, which are among the strongest in the country. Forty percent of those who took the poll said the state should make its laws even tougher, while 28 percent called for relaxing them. Another 20 percent called on Congress to enact tougher restrictions, and just 7 percent called for maintaining the status quo.
In the wake of Christie’s veto, Sweeney last month tried to hold an initial vote to override the governor on the expungement bill. But several senators couldn’t make it and some who were in the chamber didn’t cast votes, so Sweeney pulled back the override attempt before an official tally was recorded. This time, he’s threatening to use state police to ensure all 40 senators are in Trenton for today’s vote. Democrats hold a 24-16 advantage in the Senate, but it takes 27 votes to win an override.
“It’s not complicated,” Sweeney said. “This is one of the simplest pieces of legislation, the most common sense pieces of legislation I’ve ever been associated with.”
Christie questions Sweeney’s motives
But Christie accused Sweeney in a statement issued last week of “playing politics” with the issue. He also suggested that Sweeney’s activism is connected to the upcoming 2017 gubernatorial election — Sweeney is widely expected to be among the Democrats who will seek the office Christie has held since early 2010.
“Rather than looking for common ground, the Senate president has rejected bipartisan compromise out of hand and put his own political grandstanding and gubernatorial candidacy ahead of public safety and fixing the gaps that exist in our mental health system,” Christie said in the statement.
Sweeney shrugged off Christie’s criticism, but Weinberg responded by saying: “It’s the governor who goes to New Hampshire and says ‘I am proud of the fact that no new gun-safety legislation has ever passed on my watch.’”
Christie, as Democrats have pressed for the override, has instead been promoting a new piece of legislation sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union). That bill seeks to incorporate the original expungement measure with much of what’s called for in Christie’s conditional veto, according to Kean Jr.
It takes a broader approach to the expungement issue, he said, going beyond just individuals who seek to have their mental-health records changed when they want to buy a gun.
“It offers equal protection before the law for all individuals seeking an expungement if they’ve been previously civilly committed,” said Kean Jr., who formally introduced the bill on Monday. “The same standard should apply to everybody.”
“We have the opportunity to do the right thing – something big, now – on mental health,” Kean Jr. said.
This isn’t the first time Kean Jr. and his caucus have been forced to reconsider legislation they once supported en masse in the wake of a Christie veto. Earlier this year, many Republicans changed their votes during an override attempt after Christie vetoed a high-profile Port Authority reform bill drafted in response to the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal.
In all, Democrats have tried 52 different times to override the governor since 2010, without any success.
But they came close when Sweeney posted the expungement bill in September, getting Sens. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) and Chris Connors (R-Ocean) to stick with their original votes before Sweeney pulled it back.
This time around, Democrats have been pushing their GOP colleagues hard behind-the-scenes to reach the needed 27 votes today. And many have suggested that Senate Republicans, if they don’t go along with the override, will be putting Christie’s political considerations ahead of the best interests of their own constituents.
“They can level any charge they want,” Kean Jr. said in response. “Our approach is a better way to protect public safety.”