If the National Rifle Association is looking for a new location for its next big convention, it’s clear that New Jersey is unlikely to be in the running.
Gov. Phil Murphy yesterday named William Castner, a top official from the administration of former Gov. Jon Corzine, to serve as a senior adviser on firearms issues — essentially a gun czar. It’s just the latest move Murphy’s taken during his first few months in office to position New Jersey as a leader among states in the effort to combat gun violence.
Murphy, a Democrat, said Castner would spearhead efforts “to stop the flow of illegal guns and to ensure that we’re taking the right regional approaches to protecting all of our residents, both in New Jersey, and outside of our border.”
Castner, an attorney, has stepped down as a top executive at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey to serve as Murphy’s adviser. He will initially serve for two months on a pro-bono basis, Murphy said, but it’s unclear how he’ll be compensated going forward.
Gabrielle Giffords attended
Yesterday’s announcement drew the former U.S. congresswoman and shooting victim Gabrielle Giffords to Trenton, along with her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, who is also an outspoken advocate for reducing gun violence. Mark Barden, whose son Daniel was among the students who were killed in the 2012 mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, also attended the event, as did former Gov. James Florio, who signed New Jersey’s tough assault-weapons ban in 1990.
Murphy said he’s hoping, with Castner’s input, that New Jersey can ultimately serve as a “model for our nation on smart policy, and smarter programs.”
“This is, all of us together, how we win the battle against gun violence,” he said.
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. But Murphy highlighted the issue of gun violence repeatedly while running for office last year, arguing the state could still do more to reduce violent crime.
Since taking office in mid-January, Murphy has done a number of things to make good on that campaign promise, including tightening New Jersey’s restrictions for the concealed carrying of a handgun, joining a multistate firearms data-collection effort, and announcing the state pension-system’s divestment of a stake in a manufacturer of semi-automatic rifles for civilian use.
Murphy has also promised to sign a new package of gun bills that have been advancing in the state Legislature as majority Democrats have revived several measures that they were unable to get enacted when former Republican Gov. Chris Christie was in office. Those bills, which include efforts to ban armor-piercing ammunition and more strictly regulate private gun sales, have already been approved this year in the Assembly and are expected to come up for consideration in the Senate within the next few weeks.
A focus on urban gun violence
Bringing on Castner to serve as a senior adviser on firearms issues will allow his administration to continue to closely evaluate current gun laws and work in concert with outside groups like the Giffords Law Center to combat urban gun violence, Murphy said yesterday. Castner stepped down as senior vice president of corporate and regulatory affairs at Horizon, a position he’s held since 2015, to join the Murphy administration, though he will remain a consultant to the insurance company.
“Bill Castner has been a valued and respected member of Horizon’s leadership team and his considerable talents and skills will continue to serve the people of New Jersey well,” said Tom Wilson, Horizon’s director of public affairs. “We’re pleased that Bill will continue to advise Horizon as a consultant helping us to advance and protect the interests of our members.”
There’s some irony to a top Horizon official joining the new gubernatorial administration in Trenton as it was just last year that the state’s largest health insurer was a major foe of Christie’s as he pressed the organization to work with the state to fund anti-addiction efforts. But Castner is a familiar figure to State House veterans, having served as Corzine’s chief counsel, including in 2009 when the former governor enacted a law that prevents New Jersey residents from purchasing more than one handgun in any month. Castner is also a former executive director of the state Assembly.
He said yesterday that he would initially focus on several areas, including looking at ways to pursue “impact litigation” that could be used to take on unscrupulous gun manufacturers and other “bad actors.” He will also focus on generating more “corporate engagement” on gun-safety issues, along with exploring additional divestments; he said that conducting a deeper review of existing firearms regulations will also be on his plate.
Castner also suggested New Jersey and other states that are trying to advance the issue of gun-safety have to be as well-prepared as groups like the NRA, in order to mobilize gun-rights advocates and others who oppose any new gun laws. (The NRA just held a convention in Dallas, Texas last week, with President Donald Trump among the speakers who received top billing.)
“It’s no secret that opponents of commonsense gun-safety measures are highly financed, highly organized and highly innovative in terms of their agenda,” Castner said. “We need strength in numbers as we address this issue,” he added.
Giffords offered some brief words of encouragement during yesterday’s event, saying “be bold, be courageous, the nation’s counting on you.”