Nearly 30 years after enacting a sweeping assault-weapons ban, New Jersey is again a leader in the national debate on tougher gun laws as uncertainty persists whether any federal action will be taken despite the recent mass shootings in Texas and Ohio.
Since last year, New Jersey has enacted a series of laws designed to enhance public safety by requiring gun manufacturers to add safeguards, forcing individuals deemed dangerous to surrender firearms, and limiting the number of bullets that can be fired without reloading.
But the success of New Jersey’s efforts is significantly constrained by continuing inaction from other states and the federal government, given the easy ability for guns to be illegally trafficked here from states with less stringent laws.
Gov. Phil Murphy, who has pushed hard for tighter gun laws in New Jersey, said the recent mass murders in El Paso and Dayton “ought to be the wake-up call to pull our national leaders out of the gun lobby’s trance.’’
El Paso and Dayton now join the grim pantheon of just some of the many places forever linked to mass shootings: Las Vegas, Orlando, Newtown, Virginia Tech, Parkland, Sutherland Springs, Virginia Beach, Pittsburgh, San Bernadino, Fort Hood, Aurora and Columbine.
‘Tragedies mobilize public opinion’
“I think, unfortunately, these tragedies mobilize public opinion. I think we’re reaching critical mass now,’’ said former Gov. Jim Florio, who took on the National Rifle Association in 1990 and championed the state’s ban on semi-automatic assault weapons. “I’m cautiously optimistic that common sense will ultimately prevail.”
For Florio, who won the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage award in 1993 for establishing and maintaining the ban, the next step is obvious: Universal gun registration.
“We register our automobiles,’’ the former governor said. “Why shouldn’t guns be registered?”
Gun registration is rare in the United States, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which cites the lack of a comprehensive national system. The center points out that federal law does not allow using the National Instant Criminal Background Check System to establish any system of gun registration.
The center lists only Hawaii and the District of Columbia as requiring registration of all guns, with California maintaining a database of gun transfers and New York mandating registration of handguns. Six states, including New Jersey, require registration of assault weapons purchased prior to bans. New Jersey, however, also demands that any pre-ban assault guns that are kept must be rendered inoperable.
A February 2018 Quinnipiac University National Poll found 67 percent of respondents favored reinstating the federal assault weapons ban that expired 15 years ago. The poll also reported 97 percent supporting universal gun background checks and 83 percent backing a mandatory waiting period for all gun purchases.
But the continued rash of mass killings in recent years — many with the type of assault guns already banned in New Jersey, five other states and the District of Columbia — have not brought any meaningful new federal gun laws.
New Jersey has enacted a spate of laws over the past 18 months to curtail gun violence and Murphy, a Democrat, is seeking more action within the state and nationally.
The essential question now is whether President Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans in the GOP-led Senate will entertain any Democratic House-passed bills to strengthen gun laws at the national level.
“Mental illness and hatred pull the trigger, not the gun,’’ Trump said last week, condemning the massacres.
Condemnation of the president
The president called for the U.S. Department of Justice to work in partnership with local, state and federal agencies, along with social media companies, “to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike.”
Brady, a national gun violence prevention group, countered by saying it “condemns Trump’s refusal to name America’s weak gun laws as the cause of our country’s gun violence epidemic.”
Despite indications from Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that action could be taken to expand background checks and consider a federal red flag law that would allow judges to temporarily confiscate the guns of individuals deemed a danger to others and/or themselves, skepticism remains rife about the potential for new federal gun laws.
“Gov. Murphy is developing a blueprint here in New Jersey that we hope will be used in Washington once the ostriches who oppose reform are replaced,’’ said William Castner, the governor’s senior adviser on firearms.
The Rev. Robert Moore, executive director of the Coalition for Peace Action in Princeton and a long-time advocate for tighter gun laws, concurred. “I think it will take the 2020 (presidential) election and a big change in the Senate,’’ said Moore.
Latest measures in NJ
The Garden State’s newest measures include limiting most gun owners to magazines with 10 rounds of ammunition, further restricting the purchase of guns by those convicted of serious crimes, requiring the marketability of so-called smart guns, which can only be fired by authorized users, and a red flag law.
There are limits to the impact that states with tougher gun laws like New Jersey, California, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts and Maryland can wield, without similar action from other states and the federal government.
Consider that more than 75 percent of guns recovered from crimes committed in New Jersey are trafficked in from other states with weaker gun laws, according to the Murphy administration.
Additionally, the semi-automatic weapons used in the Ohio and Texas shootings were legal in those states. The shooter accused of killing three people at a July 28 festival in Gilroy, California, could not legally have bought the gun in that state. But authorities allege he purchased it legally in Nevada and then brought it illegally into California.
Castner, the governor’s senior firearms adviser, wants to bring economic pressure on gun manufacturers. Pointing out that public entities like police departments are major buyers of firearms, he has proposed that “states band together and use their purchasing power to hold the industry accountable’’ to develop safety technology like smart guns.
“They’re not going to do the right thing voluntarily,’’ said Castner.
Rutgers researches gun violence
New Jersey also is expanding its educational research efforts to help contribute to the national debate on gun safety.
Last fall, Rutgers University established New Jersey’s Center on Gun Violence Research. It is billed as a first-of-its-type educational and nonpolitical effort to explore “the causes, consequences and solutions to firearms-related violence, including homicides, assaults, suicides and accidental shootings.’’
According to data cited by Rutgers, there are nearly 100,000 gun incidents across the U.S. annually, with a third of those resulting in deaths. Even with New Jersey’s gun laws, the university says there are an average of 475 firearms-related deaths in the state annually.
The center plans to partner with researchers in other states to help build and share databases of gun research, while taking a public health approach to gun violence. Its goals also include protecting the rights of safe and legal gun owners.
“Effectively, we would like to save lives,’’ said Bernadette Hohl, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Rutgers School of Health, who is co-chair of the center.
Different from Florio’s day
The political climate in Washington is far different today than it was in 1993 when then-Gov. Florio, a Democrat, and other gun-control advocates mobilized enough counter pressure to help defeat the Republican-majority state Legislature and NRA’s efforts to repeal New Jersey’s assault-gun ban.
“I think the signal it sent was that the stranglehold of the NRA can be broken,’’ said Rev. Moore of the Coalition for Peace Action, who was part of the fight to keep the ban in place.
Unlike today, New Jersey’s battles a quarter-century ago with the NRA were joined in Washington.
In 1993, Democratic President Bill Clinton and his party’s majority Congress enacted the Brady Bill, which required federal background checks and waiting periods for handgun purchasers. In 1994, Clinton and Congress went further, passing a federal assault-weapons ban, which expired in 2004.
Florio said he initially pushed for New Jersey’s assault-gun ban because he was appalled by a 1989 shooting at an elementary school in Stockton, California that left five children dead and 32 wounded.
“It was really the first time that I can remember a massive school shooting,’’ said Florio, recalling the tragedy in which a military assault-style weapon was used. “The obvious question to me was, what does anybody need these types of things for, particularly when they’re capable of killing so many people so quickly?”
Gun owners ‘bullied and scapegoated’
Cody McLaughlin, a trustee and spokesman for New Jersey Outdoor Alliance, believes New Jersey is unfairly targeting law-abiding hunters and other gun owners by passing laws that are more cosmetic than meaningful.
“I think there’s always a threat that it expands to other states or nationally,’’ said McLaughlin of New Jersey’s renewed focus on enacting gun laws. “We know it’s a slippery slope … We’re just tired of being bullied and scapegoated.”
McLaughlin added: “This governor (Murphy), especially, takes no input from any gun owner … We just want this to be a fair conversation.’’
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, despite criticism from Murphy that he did not post certain gun bills — like one to track ammunition sales — said he is seeking to balance the rights of gun owners who follow the laws with the need for public safety.
“I really think New Jersey has done a very good job on guns,’’ said Sweeney, lamenting that vast numbers of guns are being smuggled illegally for black market sale in the state. “The people that are going through the process legally, they’re not really the lawbreakers.”
Florio on the NRA: ‘Just take them on’
Sweeney specifically cited his support of the law to limit gun magazines from 15 to 10 rounds of ammunition and said he would speak to Florio about his idea for requiring registration of guns.
Florio, meanwhile, does not regret his battles with the NRA, despite narrowly losing his 1993 re-election race, in which the gun organization mobilized and spent heavily to defeat him.
“I’ve been advocating for a long period of time that people don’t run away from the NRA — just take them on,’’ said Florio, who turns 82 this month. “…when you take them on, you prevail, because the vast majority — 85 percent of people — agree with the types of measures that are needed.”