NJ Assembly Passes Several Gun-Control Bills, with Some GOP Support

Gun-rights advocates rally in Trenton, but there’s overwhelming support for panoply of measures to increase restrictions

Credit: NJTV
Pro-gun activists rally in Trenton.
Following a weekend of protests against gun violence and a national call for new gun laws, hundreds of New Jersey gun-rights advocates rallied near the state Capitol yesterday to protest the Assembly’s move to advance more restrictive gun control. But their demonstration had little impact, as Assembly members overwhelmingly passed six bills designed to further reduce violence in the Garden State.

Although New Jersey has some of the nation’s strongest restrictions already on the books, these new measures are meant to keep firearms away from violent individuals and limit the danger some weapons pose to the public. A majority of Republicans in this blue state supported much of the legislation, including a measure to ban new armor-piercing bullets as well as a move to more strictly regulate private gun-sales by requiring background checks and to prevent mentally-ill individuals from accessing firearms.

Republican members of the Assembly raised issues with other aspects of the bills. And, although the Assembly wasted little time in approving the package, it is unknown if the state Senate will be as eager. None of the bills have yet been posted in the Senate.

Controversial proposals include limiting most shooters to 10 rounds of ammunition; making it harder to get a permit to carry a concealed handgun — reversing a provision enacted last year by former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican; and allowing courts to prevent firearm purchases among those who present an “extreme risk.”

Murphy, a strong supporter

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy — who has eagerly supported recent gun-control rallies and campaigned on efforts to reduce firearm violence — quickly offered his praise for the measures, which he pledged to sign; he urged the Senate to take up these matters quickly. (Murphy included $2 million in his proposed budget to fund a gun-violence research center at Rutgers University as part of a multi-state initiative he launched last month.)

“The energy of the tens of thousands of New Jerseyans this past weekend demanding action on gun safety continues today,” Murphy said. “The people of New Jersey have demanded we act, and we must.”

While Democrats have a significant majority in both houses of the Legislature, Senate President Steve Sweeney has declined to immediately embrace several of Murphy’s high-profile priorities. Four of the six gun-control bills have Senate sponsors identified, but none have been posted for a hearing.

Credit: NJTV
antigun rally crowd
Nationwide, the issue of gun violence has come front and center again in the wake of the shooting death of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida earlier this year. The massacre sparked thousands of Garden State students to join a national movement to walk out of class earlier this month and triggered the youth-led March for Our Lives on Saturday, which involved nationwide protests, including in cities and towns around New Jersey.

New Jersey ranks second to California

New Jersey already has among the nation’s most restrictive gun laws, ranking second to California, according to a 2017 scorecard from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which was formed with support from shooting victim and former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The Garden State has strong laws regarding background checks, domestic violence provisions, childhood safety measures, concealed carry permits, and bans on military-style weapons, according to the report, but has no law seeking to address individuals who present an extreme risk. The proposal to let courts block access for individuals who pose a serious danger seeks to fill this gap.

But Second Amendment supporters insist New Jersey has already gone far enough to curb gun rights. Monday’s rally, plans for which predated the planning of last weekend’s March For Our Lives, was organized by the Association of New Jersey Rifle & Pistol Clubs, with the support of the National Rifle Association.

‘…time for gun owners to speak’

“It’s time for gun owners to speak with one thunderous voice and let lawmakers know we are watching, we are not going away, and we are going to resist legislation that targets gun rights instead of gun criminals every step of the way,” organizers of the rally posted on the rifle and pistol club’s webpage.

Inside the Assembly chamber, some more conservative-leaning Republicans agreed that several of the new proposals went too far. Assemblyman Harold “Hal” Wirths (R-Sussex), said several of the measures were largely duplicative, given existing restrictions. Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris,) an attorney and history scholar, questioned the constitutionality of preventing patients with mental-health disorders, yet no criminal convictions, from obtaining legal weapons.

Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen) said that, as a crime victim herself, she worried about making it even harder to pack firearm protection. “It is almost impossible for a crime victim in New Jersey as we stand here today to get a concealed carry permit,” she said, noting that there are just over 1,200 permits currently issued in the Garden State.

But Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D-Camden), who sponsored five out of six of the bills, stressed these additional changes can provide important protections —and won’t make any current gun owner into a criminal overnight. Greenwald also led efforts to strengthen the state’s gun laws after Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, in 2012.

“There is an entire generation of students who have grown up with the ever-present fear of school shootings and violence in their communities. And now these students are speaking up,” Greenwald said. These bills also allow New Jersey to continue to be a national leader in gun-safety, he added, especially in light of a resistance to gun-control measures in Washington, D.C. “It’s the beginning of a patchwork quilt across the country to make a difference,” he said.

The six bills are:

1181 — a firearm seizure bill that would require certain healthcare professionals to warn law enforcement officials if they believe a patient of theirs is dangerous enough to harm themselves or someone else. If law enforcement agrees there is a danger, they would seek a court order to remove the individual’s guns or prevent them from purchasing firearms. The measure is sponsored by Assemblywomen Patricia Egan Jones (D-Camden), Gabriela Mosquera (D-Burlington), and Majority Conference Leader Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic), among others.

A-1217 — an “extreme risk protection” bill that would create a process for obtaining a protective order against someone who poses a significant risk to themselves or others, if they obtained a firearm. The bill would allow a family member or law enforcement official to file a court order requesting a dangerous individual be barred from purchasing a gun. If granted, the order would last a year and could be extended for another year. The measure is sponsored by Greenwald, Deputy Speaker Mila Jasey (D-Essex), Assemblyman Tim Eustace (D-Bergen), and Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), who suggested a law like this could have prevented the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

A-2757 — requires all sales, including private sales, to involve a check of a national criminal-background database, with certain exceptions for transactions between family members or collecting groups. The bill is sponsored by Greenwald, Assemblymen Paul Moriarty (D-Gloucester), and Jamel Holley (D-Union.)

A-2758 — this bill would reverse a change enacted last April by former Gov. Chris Christie that made it easier for individuals to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon and codify in law that they must demonstrate a “justifiable need” for such a weapon, a high bar that has kept the number of carry permits low in New Jersey. Democrats had also tried to challenge Christie’s move in court, but instead opted to pursue a legislative change. Greenwald, Moriarty and Holley sponsored this bill as well.

A-2759 — revises state law to include a ban on a new type of armor-piercing bullet that, when fired from a certain gun, can penetrate 48 layers of Kevlar, the protective substance used in bulletproof vests. It also brings state law in line with federal guidelines by making the use of such ammunition a fourth-degree crime.

A-2761 — changes the definition of “large capacity magazines” to limit most guns to ten rounds of ammunition; the state’s limit is now set at 15 bullets per magazine. The measure exempts law enforcement officials, grandfathers in certain technology, and gives people at least six months to make changes to other firearms.