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Tightening Gun-Control Laws and Making NJ Smarter About Smart Guns

Assembly committee debates eight-bill package meant to further lock down laws concerning firearms, hears opinions from gun owners and those in favor of more restrictions

smart gun

A year after New Jersey enacted a half-dozen bills that beefed up its already tough gun control laws, Assembly members on Thursday took the first step toward passing another eight restrictions. On the docket, a new bill to correct problems with the state’s current smart-gun law that would finally bring these handguns that advocates say can save lives to market.

The Assembly Judiciary Committee’s two-hour hearing brought out dozens of activists on both sides of the gun-control debate, and committee members heard many of the same arguments that are part of the national discussion: Control advocates said tighter controls save lives; gun owners complained about infringements on their Second Amendment rights. All but one of the measures cleared the committee with the four Democrats voting “yes” and the two Republicans voting “no” or abstaining. The eighth bill passed unanimously.

Ultimate passage of the measures is likely, as Gov. Phil Murphy called for many of these reforms last October, shortly after the mass shooting of 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. He has made gun control a priority, directing the state police to issue monthly and quarterly reports on gun violence, naming a senior adviser on firearms issues, and tightening restrictions on the concealed carrying of handguns in New Jersey, among other actions.

Scott Bach, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Rifle and Pistol Clubs, expressed the views of many gun owners when he said that the bills “would affect only law-abiding citizens and not criminals.”

Rev. Robert Moore, executive director of the Princeton-based Coalition for Peace Action, said New Jersey has the fifth-lowest rate of gun deaths per capita in the nation because of the strict firearms laws.

Better laws save more lives

“New Jersey already has good laws, but they need to be made even better to save more lives,” Moore said. He cited studies that found gun deaths dropped 40 percent in Connecticut a decade after the state strengthened its laws, while deaths increased 16 percent in Missouri after that state weakened its gun statutes. “These are the facts. Gun safety laws save lives.”

Moore was one of the proponents of the smart gun law New Jersey enacted in 2002 and said the bill, A-1016, that seeks to revise that law will also save lives.

Many on both sides of the gun-control debate say the 17-year-old state law meant to boost the use of technology that would allow a handgun to be fired only by its owner had the opposite effect. The law mandates that three years after smart guns are on the market, gun dealers in New Jersey could only sell smart guns. Gun-rights advocates launched campaigns in the other states with smart-gun laws — Maryland and California — and essentially kept the weapons off the market.

The new measure would instead require gun retailers in the state to carry one type of personalized gun, in addition to other handguns, and provide a list of others approved for sale by a new state committee. Sellers would have to display the smart gun prominently, along with information about its special features.

Deadly in the wrong hands

“We’ve seen far too many senseless deaths because of handguns accidentally getting in the hands of children. The technology exists to curb this possibility,” said Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen), a co-sponsor of the bill and member of the judiciary committee. “Current law is intended to encourage the development of smart-gun technology, but the prohibition on other handguns has, in effect, restricted consumer access to personalized handguns. This legislation will help our state to create a reasonable approach to improving gun safety, especially for children.”

“Until and unless the Legislature leaves them alone, the gun-owning public is not going to be interested in them,” Bach said of smart guns. “Keep your hands off them and let the market forces work.”

Democrats have twice before sent a similar bill revising the smart-gun law to the governor’s desk, but former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, killed both. In his veto message in September 2016, Christie touted a number of his actions favoring gun ownership.

“This bill is reflective of the relentless campaign by the Democratic Legislature to make New Jersey as inhospitable as possible to lawful gun ownership and sales, and I refuse to allow that to happen,” wrote Christie, who by then was no longer a presidential candidate. “When the Legislature tried to broadly expand the assault-weapons ban, I vetoed it. When the Legislature tried to lower the magazine capacity from a maximum of 15 rounds to 10, I vetoed that bill also. Most notably, I have not hesitated to use my authority as governor to pardon deserving individuals whom I believe have been unjustly charged or convicted under our State’s overly restrictive gun laws.”

Storing guns safely

Another bill that drew significant ire from those supporting gun rights was A-3696, which would specify how firearms must be stored when not in use. Current law requires the storage of guns to protect minors from accessing loaded weapons, but there are no general rules for storing firearms. The bill would require a weapon to be secured in a locked box or container or with a trigger lock when the gun is not being used. Those failing to properly store a weapon could be fined $1,000 or receive six months in jail or both.

Diane Dresdale of the National Council for Jewish Women—Essex County and Moms Demand Action said keeping guns locked securely will help prevent suicides. She cited a number of statistics, including that 22,000 people use a gun to kill themselves each year, which works out to 59 a day, and that 40 percent of all gun deaths in New Jersey are suicides.

“Having quick access to a gun makes suicide easier,” she said. “This does not in any way impede anyone’s Second Amendment rights.”

Bach, from the New Jersey Association of Rifle and Pistol Clubs, cited an incident in California in which two children were killed in their home by an intruder and their older sister couldn’t shoot the assailant because the family’s gun was locked away.

“When you require that when a gun is not in use you must lock it up, that results in deaths,” he said.

Louis Greenwald
Credit: NJ Assembly Democrats
Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D-Camden/Burlington)

Gun enthusiasts also chafed at a four-bill package dealing with the sale and transfer of firearms, straw purchasing, and gun trafficking. Additional gun controls are necessary, said Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D-Camden), one of the sponsors of the package. As proof, he pointed to two high-profile shootings in Trenton that killed one and wounded 15 over the Memorial Day weekend and to the most recent NJGUNSTAT report that found 83 percent of guns recovered at crime scenes in New Jersey during the first quarter of 2019 were originally purchased out of state.

“Since the tragedy in Sandy Hook, we have revised our laws in New Jersey, restricting large-capacity weapons and ghost guns from getting into the wrong hands, to reduce the scourge of gun violence plaguing our cities,” Greenwald said, referring to the 2012 mass shooting of 26 — most of them children between ages 6 and 7 — at a Connecticut elementary school 6 1/2 years ago. “These new bills will ensure that law enforcement, state entities, and gun-store owners will work together to reduce gun crimes and gun trafficking in our communities.”

Specifically, the bills in the package are:

  • A-5455, which would require the logging and reporting of ammunition and mandate the development of an electronic system to make that and other information related to firearms easily accessible to law enforcement;

  • A-5454, which would criminalize the purchase, transfer, or possession of guns and ammunition by persons convicted of certain crimes, expanding the list of crimes that currently bars a person from owning a firearm or ammunition, and making it a third-degree crime to transport, ship, sell, dispose of or possess a gun without a federally licensed and registered serial number;

  • A-5452, which would require the renewal every four years of firearms-purchasing identification cards, now good for a lifetime, with an increased fee of $100 for each card, mandate a person take firearms training prior to getting an ID and handgun-purchase permits, and revise the procedures for passing firearms to an heir;

  • A-5453, which would establish criminal penalties for the transfer of firearms and ammunition to a person disqualified to own a firearm or permit under state law, known as straw purchasing.

Closing the loopholes

Yvonne Lopez
Credit: NJ Assembly Democrats
Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez (D-Middlesex)

“We know that we must close gun-trafficking loopholes and crack down on straw purchasing in order to effectively fight gun violence in this state,” said Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez (D-Middlesex), another sponsor of the package. “With this legislation, we will provide law enforcement and our judicial system the tools they need to prosecute criminals involved in these illegal businesses to the fullest extent of the law.”

Several gun owners complained about the bills in this package. One said requiring the renewal of firearms ID cards every four years is a way for the state to make money on the backs of gun owners. Others said these bills are redundant and that the state already has laws in place to deal with improper purchases of guns.

A separate bill, A-4449, would prohibit a person who is not allowed to possess a firearm from asking a person, including a dealer, to sell or otherwise provide him with a gun. It would make this offense a third-degree crime punishable by a three-to-five year term of incarceration, a fine of up to $15,000, or both.

The only measure that got the support of all committee members was A-3896, which would require the state attorney general to establish a suicide prevention course curriculum and suicide prevention informational materials for retail dealers who sell firearms or operate a firing range in this state. Taking the class would be optional, but firearm retailers and firing ranges would be required to make the informational materials available at their counters.

Thursday’s vote was the first movement of any of the bills. They will need to pass the full Assembly and the Senate before being sent to Murphy.

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