For years, Josh Finnical watched from the sidelines as gun rights activists in New Jersey fought for the right to bear arms. Two years ago, the Cumberland County resident saw advocates lose ground when Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy signed a handful of gun safety laws.
Murphy would sign four more gun laws in the summer of 2019, and that’s when Finnical had enough. As of December 23, he’s taken a front-row seat in the state’s new pro-Second Amendment movement.
“The ultimate goal is to stop the further infringement of our Second Amendment right and then hopefully maybe even repeal some of the [current state] laws,” said Finnical, who leads a Cumberland County chapter of the statewide group.
Last week, Finnical successfully lobbied Cumberland County freeholders to pass a resolution in support of the Second Amendment. Cumberland County is the sixth in the state to do so and joins 30 other townships in what is a purely symbolic gesture in New Jersey — for now. People like Finnical, who had previously remained out of the gun discussion, want to pass resolutions in all 21 counties as a rebuttal to some of the strictest gun regulations in the country.
The goal of these activists is to eventually gain enough support to challenge New Jersey’s gun laws in the courts.
Similar movements in other states
The movement is most visible in Virginia, where a Democratic takeover of the State House last November fueled opposition from gun rights activists. But Second Amendment resolutions have also made it to states like Pennsylvania where Republicans control the legislature.
The “sanctuary” portion of the movement’s name is a reference to “sanctuary cities” or local governments that won’t cooperate with federal immigration enforcement, but not all pro-gun resolutions in the Garden State have incorporated the term.
At its most aggressive, this new wave of the gun rights movement works to pass ordinances across cities and towns that say local authorities won’t comply with state and federal gun restrictions they believe infringe their Second Amendment rights.
In Cumberland County, the Second Amendment resolution Finnical helped pass last week is symbolic — local law enforcement will still enforce state gun laws.
But gun advocates packed February’s board of freeholders meeting with at least 50 supporters to put their foot down: They want the restrictions to stop.
The resolution encouraged “continuing dialogue at the Legislative and Executive levels of the State of New Jersey to assure that the application of gun control requirements is not so unduly restrictive as to violate Second Amendment rights,” while acknowledging the board can’t change state laws.
“It just goes to show you the belief in the Second Amendment is still alive and well,” Finnical said. “I think there’s been a kind of an awakening amongst people like myself that now realize, ‘Hey, it’s time to stand up and do something.’”
Objecting to new rules
Gun owners in New Jersey argue the hurdles Trenton lawmakers have created for gun purchases don’t promote public safety.
To purchase a firearm in the state, gun owners have to pay a $5 application and provide fingerprints, consent to a mental health records check, and two references.
Applicants must wait 30 days for local law enforcement to process the forms, but gun owners say it can take months.
Advocates argue criminals won’t wait for the state-mandated Firearm ID Card required for gun purchases.
“The criminals are going to carry anyway,” said Ron Maccri, a retired law enforcement officer who lives in Vineland. “Because they’re criminals.”
Making it harder for civilians to purchase weapons only makes them more vulnerable to criminals, said Maccri.
“If I got to a movie theater and I’m carrying a weapon and something happens in that movie theater — somebody comes in and starts shooting the place up — I don’t want to be the only one that can protect everyone,” he said. “Everybody in that movie theater should be carrying a weapon.”
While Maccri acknowledges some may find a room full of people carrying weapons jarring, he argues it’s the sort of thing that would make a shooter think twice.
“Do you only want bullets flying towards you or do you want somebody to take that shooter out?” explained Maccri.
Fueled by recent gun safety measures
In 2018, Maccri spoke at a gun-rights rally in Trenton, hoping to stop the passage of restrictive gun laws.
“Unfortunately, it did nothing,” he said.
That year, Gov. Phil Murphy signed several new gun safety measures including a ban on armor-piercing ammunition, background checks on private gun purchases, and banned magazines with more than 10 rounds – except for retired law enforcement who can carry up to 15 rounds.
Extreme risk protective orders also called “red flag laws” also made it to Murphy’s desk and created a stir among gun owners. The law can trigger the seizure of a person’s weapons if a family member or law enforcement believe the owner is in danger of causing bodily harm to themselves or others.
Gloucester County resident Ron Chow has similarly taken part in gun rallies across the East Coast and similarly found they do little to stop the passage of gun safety measures. He was already viewing the activism coming out of Virginia when West Milford passed a Second Amendment Sanctuary resolution last December.
Chow started to think about what an organized gun sanctuary movement could like in New Jersey. He started a Gloucester County 2A Sanctuary public Facebook page and started inviting gun owners he knew.
“By the end of that week we had almost 21 counties throughout the state opened up on Facebook,” he said.
Through public meet-and-greets, Chow said the smaller groups continue to grow. Individual townships have created similar Facebook groups where viewers can download letter templates they can mail to their local representatives.
Chow’s phone calendar shows a packed schedule with visits to monthly freeholder and council meetings across the state at a clip he said he can barely keep up with.
Still, the movement is not without detractors.
“The thing that bothers me the most is that it could give people the mistaken impression … that somehow those laws don’t apply in those municipalities and of course, that’s wrong,” said Rev. Robert Moore, executive director of the Coalition for Peace Action which helps run Ceasefire New Jersey.
It’s a concern echoed by New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.
The state has one of the lowest per capita gun death rates in the country, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data and Moore worries any effort to rescind gun laws could increase those deaths.
Still, Chow and gun activists across the state say they won’t stop until they can reverse the laws they argue infringe on their rights.