Summer Reading 2018: The Hard-Won Battle to Ban Assault Weapons in NJ

NJ Spotlight | August 19, 2018 | 2018 Summer Reading
Former Governor James J. Florio details his struggle to ban assault weapons in New Jersey, a victory that cost the Democrats both the state Senate and the state Assembly

2018 summer florio
The writers and editors at NJ Spotlight like to take advantage of the August slowdown to ease back on the throttle themselves and spend more time with family and friends. While we’re recharging, however, we’ll be posting an excerpt from a book or author with a New Jersey connection every day as part of our Summer Reading series. We’ll be back rested and ready on September 4. Have a great Labor Day and keep reading.

James J. Florio was the 49th governor of New Jersey, as well as a former congressman and assemblyman. As a political leader, Florio was responsible for the federal Superfund legislation, protection of the Pinelands, the original school-funding formula that resulted from the Supreme Court decision in Abbott v. Burke, among many other successes. In this excerpt from his recent memoir, “Standing on Principle,” Florio details what he counts as one of his greatest achievements — New Jersey’s 1993 assault weapons ban.

The Assault Weapons Ban

“One person of courage can make a majority.”— Sen. Edward M. Kennedy

From the very start, I knew that getting a tough assault weapons bill through both houses of the New Jersey legislature would not be easy. Although the size of my victory in the gubernatorial race had generated some coattails, leading to Democratic majorities of 23–17 in the New Jersey Senate and 44–36 in the General Assembly, there were plenty of legislators, both Democrat and Republican, whose districts, like my former legislative and congressional districts, contained substantial numbers of gun owners.

Not that New Jersey was ever home to a large gun-toting constituency. The combination of the state’s small size and dense population severely limits the amount of land available for hunting, trap shooting, target practice, or other recreational activities that involve firearms. In 1989, 46 percent of American households had at least one firearm; in the decade from 1981 to 1990, the corresponding figure in New Jersey was 36.3 percent. In the decade that followed, that proportion dropped to 33.3 percent.

Nevertheless, the State Police estimated that the number of semiautomatic weapons in the hands of New Jersey residents in 1990 was somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000. And there were plenty of vocal members of active gun-owner groups, like my friends from the Square Circle Sportsmen, all across New Jersey, especially in the rural parts of the state: Sussex, Warren, and Hunterdon Counties in the north and Cape May, Cumberland, and Salem Counties in the south.

There was also a very active statewide lobbying group—the Coalition of New Jersey Sportsmen—that had a large and influential membership. And, of course, the National Rifle Association (NRA) was not going to sit idly by while New Jersey debated a bill that would take certain weapons out of its members’ hands. In fact, between 1990, when I called on the legislature to ban assault weapons, and 1993, NRA membership in New Jersey jumped from 4,000 to 12,000.

We did have a couple of factors working in our favor. For one thing, opinion polls showed that a clear majority of New Jerseyans supported an assault weapons ban. Second, leaders in both houses of the legislature were working tirelessly to round up the votes necessary to pass the bill and send it to my desk for signature.

One of these leaders, Assembly Speaker Joe Doria, was very supportive and undertook this task with enthusiasm. The other, Senate President John Lynch, was more apprehensive. He agreed to shepherd the bill through the upper house, and he ended up doing so masterfully, but he warned me early on that there would be political consequences. In fact, he told me point- blank, “This will kill you. You don’t want to do this.”

John had good political insights. He knew how the gun lobby and the sportsmen’s clubs would respond. He knew there would be pushback in his own caucus from members who were either gun owners themselves or represented districts where gun ownership was an important issue.
He was absolutely right in the sense that, politically, pushing what we knew would be a controversial bill to ban assault weapons didn’t make a lot of sense. But to me, it did make sense as a matter of public policy. I told John I appreciated the political difficulties this would cause, but it was something I felt strongly about. And he was fine with that. He was loyal. He went out and fought for it and got it passed, even though he knew there would be serious repercussions.

In retrospect, the scene that unfolded in the assembly chamber on May 17, 1990, should have given us an inkling of what was to come. That was the day the assembly, after four-and-a-half hours of intense debate, voted 43–33 to give final approval to the assault weapons ban. It was also a day that people who were there still say, more than a quarter-century later, was one of the scariest they’ve ever lived through.

An estimated 400 demonstrators, many of them wearing bright-orange hunting vests, jammed the hallway outside the assembly chamber, which was temporarily housed in the State House Annex while the old chamber was undergoing renovations. Armed with walkie- talkies and loudspeakers, the demonstrators chanted, “Florio must go.” They banged on the windows. They raised their hands in a salute, with thumb and forefinger extended in the shape of a pistol. One carried a Nazi flag with the words “Florio’s New Jersey” written on it. State troopers had to be called in to keep the mob scene from turning violent.

The demonstrations weren’t limited to the State House. Protesters turned up outside Drumthwacket, the governor’s residence in Princeton, shouting insults and holding up posters depicting me with a Hitler moustache. Inside, my wife Lucinda was horrified; she said she had never in her life witnessed the level of incivility unleashed by passage of the assault weapons bill.

The law I signed less than two weeks later banned the purchase of all assault weapons in New Jersey. Unlike the California law that had taken effect earlier in the year, our law did not exempt current owners; instead, it severely restricted possession of any assault weapon not used for legitimate collecting or target-shooting purposes. Current owners were given one year to either sell their weapon or render it inoperable by certifying that the parts necessary to fire it had been removed from their immediate possession, making the gun purely a collector’s piece.
“I am proud to sign this bill into law today,” I said as I put my signature to it. “It’s the toughest law in the nation. It’s right. It’s fair, and it will make New Jersey a better place.”

Little did I know that, after we had fought such a bitter fight to get this law enacted, an even tougher fight lay ahead—to save it.

*****

Despite the commotion they had caused outside the assembly chamber, the NRA and the Coalition of New Jersey Sportsmen knew that public sentiment was not on their side. They saw the same surveys we saw, indicating that 80 percent of New Jersey voters supported the assault weapons ban. So instead of pushing for outright repeal of the law, they sought to weaken it— and they found the legislature receptive.

By the spring of 1991, legislators in both houses were in full election mode. Because of redistricting following the 1990 census, every seat in both the senate and assembly would be on the ballot in November, and the gun lobby was already putting a target on legislators who had voted for the assault weapons ban.

On May 23, hundreds of gun advocates returned to the State House, clamoring for the assembly to pass an amendment, already approved by the senate, that would allow current owners to keep and register their assault weapons. That evening, the same assembly that had voted 43–33 for the assault weapons ban a year earlier voted 48–25 to weaken it.
I understood why certain legislators believed their vote for a complete ban on assault weapons made them vulnerable in their bid for reelection and why they felt compelled to support the amendment that would weaken the law. Neither party loyalty nor statewide polls could necessarily compete with the loud voices of local constituents. One South Jersey Democrat in particular, Senator Ray Zane, represented mostly rural parts of Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem Counties where gun ownership was practically a way of life, and there was no way a vote in favor of any form of gun control would be welcomed in his district.

But I also knew—and the legislators did too—that voting for the amendment to weaken the assault weapons ban was largely a symbolic exercise. There was never any doubt that I would veto it. Nor was there any doubt that the legislature, still in the hands of Democrats, would fail to override the veto. Yet by voting for the amendment, legislators who might be targeted by the NRA and the Coalition of New Jersey Sportsmen could tell them, “Don’t blame me, blame Florio.”

Those groups did blame me, of course. But they didn’t spare the legislators, and neither did the voters, who were angry about a lot of other things in November 1991. A powerful antitax movement, spurred by a grassroots organization calling itself Hands Across New Jersey (and enthusiastically supported by a fledgling FM radio station, New Jersey 101.5, that was looking to make a statewide name for itself), swept Democratic lawmakers out of office in record numbers.

The NRA and the Coalition of New Jersey Sportsmen contributed $25,000 to the assembly Republican majority and more than $250,000 to the campaigns of candidates they knew to be hostile to gun control. We were to learn later that the NRA was also a silent but significant financial benefactor to Hands Across New Jersey.

When the dust settled after the November 1991 election, Republicans had won vetoproof majorities in both houses: 27–13 in the senate and 58–22 in the assembly. That set the stage for the real battle over assault weapons.

It was readily apparent from the moment the 205th New Jersey legislature convened in January 1992 that repeal of the assault weapons ban would be among its highest priorities. The new assembly Speaker, Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian, declared early on that his constituents in rural Warren County, together with many senior law-enforcement officers, were urging his GOP colleagues and him to repeal the ban.

As contentious as this issue was, and as aggressively as the new Republican majority pressed for repeal, it’s important to note that the battle inside the State House never descended to the level of personal attacks that were being hurled by the NRA and its supporters outside the legislative chambers. Chuck Haytaian was a tough opponent; he and I had decidedly different views on this issue, as well as on many others. But we always treated each other cordially and respectfully.

Another illustration of the difference between disagreeing and being disagreeable is my relationship with Don Sico, who served as Haytaian’s chief of staff after Republicans captured the majority. He worked as hard in that capacity to repeal the assault weapons ban in 1992 as he had worked as former congressman Jim Courter’s communication director to defeat me in the 1989 election. But these battles were always political, never personal. In the years since we both left public office, Don and I have worked closely on a number of projects of mutual interest. Today, I count him as a close personal friend. Chuck Haytaian was a tough opponent; he and I had decidedly different views on this issue, as well as on many others. But we always treated each other cordially and respectfully.

*****

In May 1992, repeal legislation sailed through the assembly by a 55–18 vote. The senate later approved a slightly different version. When the two houses reconciled the two bills in August, the final vote was 28–10 in the senate and 47–16 in the assembly. Once again, everyone knew I would veto the bill— but this time, with the vote for repeal in both houses having surpassed the two- thirds majority necessary to override a veto, it was widely assumed that the assault weapons law was headed for the dustbin of history.

I had forty-five days to veto the bill. I decided to use that time to launch a campaign to engage and inform the public, to encourage the voices of citizens to prevail over the influence of a powerful special interest.

I brought my staff together and said, “We’re going to do this. We have the time. We’re going to mobilize everyone.” And that’s what we did.

The engage-and-inform strategy began on the very day the legislature voted to repeal the assault weapons ban. I happened to be hosting a meeting of the National Governors Association in Princeton, and I asked two of my fellow governors, William Donald Schaefer of Maryland and John Waihee III of Hawaii, to join me at the Mercer County Detention Center for a demonstration of the firepower of military-style weapons.

With the media looking on, a State Police sergeant laid down a barrage of fire with three assault weapons—an AK-47, Uzi, and Intratec 9 pistol—at the rate of five or six shots per second. The reporters witnessed, and the cameras captured, a vivid display of one-gallon plastic milk jugs filled with red liquid being blown to bits. Governor Schaefer, who had been trying for years to get an assault weapons ban passed in Maryland, said the demonstration gave vivid testimony to his belief that assault weapons “have only one purpose—to kill people.”

In our public campaign, we had the help of a Methodist minister in Cape May, the Rev. Jack Johnson, who offered to rally the clergy, encouraging ministers and priests to talk about their experiences presiding at the funerals of gunshot victims. We engaged the health care community—doctors and nurses who had treated gunshot wounds in emergency rooms, including a physician at the University of Medicine and Dentistry, Dr. Eric Munoz, who testified that the Department of Defense came to Newark to train their medical staff on gunshot wounds because they were so common in our state’s largest city. We got teachers to talk about their experiences with children who had been exposed to gun violence.

Attorney General Bob DelTufo and State Police Superintendent Justin Dintino led the long list of prominent law-enforcement professionals who supported the ban. In Camden County, law-enforcement officials lamented that they were hesitant to send police into North Camden because the neighborhood criminals, armed with semiautomatic weapons, had more firepower than the police had. After a fifteen-year-old girl was shot and killed in Paterson, I spoke at the scene of the shooting and held up a weapon like the one that killed her as tearful family members and friends looked on.

I even took my campaign into the belly of the beast, getting a not-so-friendly reception from the Square Circle Sportsmen in Gibbsboro. I wanted to know why the people who had supported me for so many years were so bitterly opposed to a ban on assault weapons. “Does anybody here have an assault weapon?” I asked. “No,” they answered. “Does anybody here hunt with one?” I asked. “No,” they replied. So, I said, “Well, what’s your problem?” One of the members volunteered, “Well, we learned from the NRA that once these things start, you have that slippery slope. The next thing is you’ll be taking away our weapons.” I asked pointedly, “You think I’m going to take away your hunting rifle?” Nobody responded.

I vetoed the bill on September 9, and we kept up the pressure. President Bill Clinton hailed our assault weapons ban as a national model and called on Congress to adopt the Brady Bill to outlaw assault weapons nationwide. (It took another two years, but Congress did pass that bill and Clinton signed it into law for a period of ten years.) The namesake of that federal law, James Brady, came to my office in a wheelchair to show his support. Gregory Peck made a television commercial urging residents to oppose efforts in the legislature to override my veto. Even my predecessor as governor, Tom Kean, said of his fellow Republicans’ effort to repeal the law, “It’s dead wrong. I don’t know what the lawful purpose could be in owning an assault weapon.”

An Eagleton Poll taken shortly before the assembly scheduled a vote to override the veto found that 90 percent of New Jerseyans favored the assault weapons ban. In my veto message on September 9, I had recommended that instead of calling for an override vote, the legislature should let the public decide in referendum whether the ban should be retained or repealed. A few lawmakers got cold feet, including four Republicans who bucked their party’s leadership in the assembly by voting to sustain the veto, but the lower house voted to override by the barest possible two-thirds majority, 54–23, on February 25, 1993—despite the public’s overwhelming support for the ban.

Now it was up to the senate, which lived up to the role our Founding Fathers envisioned: it performed as the more deliberative legislative body. Senate President Donald DiFrancesco (affectionately referred to by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle as “Donnie D”) was being pressured behind the scenes by several Republican senators who had voted for repeal, and even by some assembly members who had voted for the veto override, not to post the override bill. He also let it be known in the GOP caucus that he personally felt that overriding the veto was not in his party’s interest. In addition, the only Republican senator who had voted
for the assault weapons ban and against repeal, Bill Gormley of Atlantic County, made it clear he wasn’t about to change his mind.

These two Republican senators earned my deepest gratitude for standing up to the extraordinary pressure brought to bear on them by the NRA. Even more, they deserve the gratitude of all New Jersey citizens for their courageous decision to do what was right, to put the public interest ahead of a powerful special interest.

By the time the override bill reached the senate floor on March 15, 1993, the momentum that had driven it through the assembly had ground to a halt, and support for it in the upper house
had evaporated. In the end, twenty-six
senators—Senate President DiFrancesco, Senator Gormley, fourteen of their fellow Republicans, and ten Democrats—voted to sustain the veto; the other fourteen senators abstained. Not a single member of the senate of either party cast a vote to override the veto.

The assault weapons ban stood—and it still stands today.

This excerpt from Standing on Principle: Lessons Learned in Public Life Copyright © 2018 by James J. Florio is used with the generous permission of Rutgers University Press.

Purchase this book on Amazon.

Read more from the 2018 Summer Reading Series.