If stronger gun control cannot be enacted on a national basis, it can on a regional basis – at least that’s the thinking behind a new multistate group called the Coalition of States for Gun Safety. Gov. Phil Murphy, along with fellow Democratic governors of New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, announced a memorandum of understanding between the states to share intelligence and databases on gun issues.
“Gun violence is not a New Jersey problem, a New York problem, a Connecticut problem, a Rhode Island problem, or a problem for any particular state or region. It is a national problem,” Murphy said. “We cannot wait for Congress or the President to act. As states, we must work together to take the steps and enact measures to protect our residents and our communities.”
The coalition will create a joint task force to trace and intercept illegal guns crossing state lines, a coordinated plan to respond to threats of mass gun violence by sharing law enforcement resources, and a regional gun-violence research consortium leveraging universities to study and produce reports on gun violence.
The coalition is meant to offer a regional solution to illegal gun trafficking along what is known as the “iron pipeline” – the I-95 corridor from states like South Carolina and Georgia where gun laws are more permissive.
“More than 80 percent of gun crimes committed in New Jersey are committed with guns from out of state.” Murphy said. He added that he hopes other states will join in the coalition and tighten gun laws accordingly.
Among the toughest in the nation
The four states in the Coalition already have some of the strictest gun laws in the country. According to a scorecard from Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence (a national public interest law center), New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut all have A- gun-law ratings and some of the lowest gun death rates in the nation. California is the only state with a higher rating than Connecticut and New Jersey (only Massachusetts and Maryland are higher than New York). Rhode Island has a B+ rating and a lower gun death rate than New York.
New Jersey already prohibits the sale of assault weapons like the AR-15 used in the Parkland shooting for all residents and limits the magazine capacity for semi-automatic rifles to 15 rounds or fewer. The background check process is also thorough. Any resident attempting to purchase a firearm in the state must obtain either a permit to purchase a handgun or a Firearms Purchaser Identification Card (FPIC) and must be cleared of a long list of criminal charges that includes drug convictions, as well as anyone with an active felony or misdemeanor warrant.
These state requirements are layered on top of the federal restrictions that require a scan of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). If a prospective buyer is not in the NICS system, they are cleared for purchase. These checks are provided to gun dealers and the results usually come through in a matter of minutes, though the FBI is allowed up to three business days to determine if someone is eligible to purchase a firearm.
New Jersey is also listed as a “point-of-contact” for the NICS, which means the state develops and maintains its own NICS database, adding one more middleman between the dealer and the federal government. This puts all enforcement and record-keeping responsibility on the state police rather than solely on the FBI. The state police are tasked with handling any requests and implementing all aspects of the Brady Act (the federal law mandating background checks for firearm purchased from licensed dealers) in the state.
One of the main concerns following the Parkland, FL, shootings is the ease with which those with mental illness can obtain a lethal weapon. Federal law says no one who has been “adjudicated as a mental defective” or involuntarily “committed to any mental institution” can possess a firearm of any kind, though it does not require states to report those individuals to the NICS database.
This was a sticking point National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch raised in a televised town hall debate with student survivors from Parkland on CNN Wednesday night. Loesch said the NICS system is “only as good as the records submitted to it,” and put the onus on law enforcement to “follow up on red flags.” The NRA’s official website, however, says the organization opposes expanding background checks.
In 2009, New Jersey, passed an exception to the confidentiality rule for inpatient records allowing mental health information to be added to the state NICS. The law requires the state police to collect and submit any data “as may be required to make a determination as to whether a person is disqualified from possessing or receiving a firearm.”
Applicants looking to obtain a permit in the state must therefore “waive any statutory or other right of confidentiality relating to institutional confinement” allowing their mental health records to be catalogued in the NICS.
As part of the new coalition, the four states will be sharing any state databases that identify individuals who are disqualified from owning a firearm. States, however, may need to pass new laws barring those listed from purchasing guns. For example, Connecticut – following the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012 – passed a law preventing those subject to an “extreme risk protection order” (a restraining order for victims of domestic violence) from possessing a gun. New Jersey does not currently have such a rule in place, but under the new coalition, those people would still be flagged in New Jersey.
Laws in the works
Murphy said that he is prepared to sign any “commonsense” gun measures that cross his desk, and a few are being fast tracked his way. Currently, there is pending legislation to reduce maximum capacity of ammunition magazines to 10 rounds, require background checks for private gun sales, prohibit possession of body-armor-piercing ammunition, change the regulations defining “justifiable need” to carry a handgun, revise the definition of “destructive device” to essentially ban 50 caliber rifles, and require dealers to stock “smart gun” technology when/if it becomes available.
Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) also introduced legislation this week prohibiting the investment of New Jersey public-
employee pension funds in any gun manufacturer companies.
Another bill making its way through the Legislature is S-63, which would require and fund a comprehensive gun-violence study to be conducted by Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care. The multistate coalition calls for a gun-violence research consortium formed from the combined academic efforts of universities in all four states and involving “researchers in the disciplines of criminal justice, public safety, public health, public policy, and social welfare.” This regional analysis could prove vital as the federal government currently bans the Center for Disease Control and Prevention from studying or publishing research on gun violence.
Issues with university studies
This isn’t the first time New Jersey has attempted to produce a gun-violence study. In 2016, legislation that would establish a firearm violence research center at Rutgers was left to die in committee after it was virulently opposed by gun-rights activist groups and officials from Rutgers itself. At the May 18 hearing, George Leblanc, vice president for government and fiscal affairs at Rutgers, testified that politicians forcing a university to pursue an area of research impedes their “academic independence.” Leblanc was also concerned that the proposed legislation was an unfunded mandate and would put a burden on the school’s finances.
In this session, however, Rutgers is firmly on board. Pete McDonough, vice president of public affairs at Rutgers, said university representatives including Leblanc, have been working with the bill’s sponsors Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) and Lou Greenwald (D-Camden) in the Assembly to craft funded legislation that wouldn’t compromise the university’s mission.
“Our country has seen an epidemic of gun violence, and no one is immune to it. Especially after the harrowing events of last week’s shooting in Parkland, we must do everything in our power to end gun violence in our nation,” Greenwald said in an emailed statement. “While Washington has seen inaction on this issue, we will do everything we can to make New Jersey a leader on this commonsense gun reform. The time to act is now.”