A grassroots movement is growing among gun rights advocates in New Jersey, enlisting town halls in small, mostly rural sections of the state in their battle against gun laws imposed by Trenton, considered to be among the toughest in the nation.
“I would believe the right to own a gun is probably being threatened, yes,” said Dean Voris, the owner of the Garriss General Store in Stillwater Township, a rural Sussex County community that’s home to avid hunters and others who believe their Second Amendment rights are under attack.
The township committee last week adopted a resolution declaring Stillwater a “Pro Second Amendment/Lawful Gun Owner Township” — the latest in a series of such resolutions adopted in small and rural towns across the state. Some, like West Milford, have passed resolutions labeling their municipalities Second Amendment “sanctuary” communities.
The resolution had the enthusiastic support of the crowd lined up for lunch at Garris’, a new business in a building dating almost to the Civil War, even though the measure is nonbinding and not much more than a statement of support for the rights to own a gun.
“I’d rather have one and not need it, than need one and not have it,” said resident Matt Haight.
Deputy Mayor George Scott was at a standing-room meeting of the township committee last week and voted for the resolution. “You have to make a stand, sooner or later — it’s just getting out of line,” he said.
“I think the excesses have been so extreme,” said Bill Szabo, another of Stillwater’s 4,000 residents, who spoke in support of the resolution at the meeting on Tuesday.
New Jersey’s gun control laws impose undue burdens on law-abiding gun owners, he maintained, “by increasing costs dramatically on anything having to do with buying guns or trading, whatever.”
Criticism of red flag law
The measure also criticizes New Jersey’s controversial red flag law — designed to remove guns from people deemed a threat to themselves or others. Scott believes it denies gun owners due process.
“The legal gun owners, we’re the ones that are suffering on all this. And it’s a shame,” he added. “Parker Space was right. It’s time to say, ‘stop.’”
The reference was to state Assemblyman Parker Space, a Wantage Republican who has been promoting boilerplate Second Amendment resolutions in towns across Sussex County.
“I think it sends a strong message to what I call the gun-grabbing legislators in Trenton,” he said during an interview in a room festooned with hunting trophies at his family business, Space Farms Zoo and Museum in Wantage.
“He is pushing that component to a lot of towns,” said Stillwater Mayor Lisa Chammings, who voted against the measure. “And, I guess in this area, he’s got a lot of audience.”
A similar campaign is gaining traction in mostly red and rural communities in South Jersey. All told, almost a dozen towns — plus Cape May County — have adopted similar resolutions.
Nick Joseph is the co-founder of a group called NJ2A Sanctuary.
“We have at least a group of advocates for every single county, and they are actively getting people to get up off the couch and send out the resolutions,” he said. “And by sending out these resolutions, I think that we’re sending a strong message to our state government, saying that people in New Jersey, regardless of what some may think, have a lot of support for our Second Amendment.”
Advocates of gun control push back
Organizers point to last week’s gun rights rally in Richmond as an inspiration.
Gun control advocates call these resolutions propaganda, and urge residents to support the laws which they say have kept New Jersey’s per capita gun death rate among the nation’s lowest.
“Government’s sacred obligation is public safety, in the constraints of liberty,” said Mike Vrabel of the Sussex County arm of the pro-gun control Brady Campaign. “We don’t want to step on constitutional toes here, and we’re not.”
Gov. Phil Murphy is also a staunch champion of the state’s strong gun laws.
“We have among the most forward-leaning gun safety laws in America,” the first-term Democrat has said. “And I think Swiss-cheesing those laws and taking them out here or there is a huge mistake, because it runs right at our public safety.”
Among those in favor of the gun rights campaign is Sussex County Sheriff Mike Strada, who has crossed swords with Murphy on a number of items on the governor’s progressive political agenda.
“We’re not the ones that are committing the crimes,” he said. “Sometimes you feel you’re being punished by the government, and I think they’re just overreaching.”
Supporters say the resolutions — even if they change no laws — at least show that gun owners have a voice.
“I’m not sure how effective it’s really going to end up being, unless everybody does it,” said Stillwater resident Karen Puccio. “Everybody has to be on board with it. But we’ll see in the coming election.”
Space, the state lawmaker, says he will be promoting the Second Amendment resolution next in Hopatcong and Wantage. Gun control groups like Brady say they will be countering with an education blitz.