Bills to further tighten N.J. gun laws move forward as Supreme Court ruling casts a shadow

Published: Jun. 23, 2022

Around the same time the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling Thursday that could allow more people to carry guns in public in America, state lawmakers in Trenton took steps toward passing several proposals to further tighten New Jersey’s already strict firearm laws — including many Gov. Phil Murphy has repeatedly sought.

But two of the biggest bills Murphy has asked for — one that would raise the age to buy shotguns and rifles in the state from 18 to 21 and one that would revamp how guns must be stored in the state — appear unlikely to move forward.

There’s also uncertainty over whether the Supreme Court’s decision could jeopardize the rest of the package.

Both the state Senate Judiciary and state Assembly Appropriations committees approved numerous firearm measures, largely along party lines, at the Statehouse in Trenton as Democrats who run state government have broken a year-long logjam over the issue. A day earlier, the Assembly Judiciary Committee signed off on the measures.

This comes during the usually busy final days before the state budget must be approved at the end of June — a period that often yields deals on heavily debated legislation.

Many of the bills are part of a long-stalled package Murphy, a Democrat, has called for the Democratic-controlled state Legislature to pass over the last 14 months, saying they will make the state safer. It’s a message he amplified in the wake of the recent mass shootings in Buffalo and Texas.

Those include proposals to mandate that people receive firearm training to get a gun permit in New Jersey, ban .50 caliber rifles in the state, require micro-stamping technology, have new residents coming from other states register firearms, regulate handgun ammunition, and make it easier to sue gun manufacturers and dealers over gun crimes.

Other bills are new, including ones that would limit body armor and crack down on ghost guns in the state.

But while the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Wednesday approved the bills that would raise the age to buy a long gun (A509) and reform firearm storage (A509), the Senate panel did not approve them Thursday. State Sen. Joseph Cryan, D-Union, a main sponsor, said neither of those has enough support to pass the entire Legislature, at least not now.

The other measures — eight in all — could get final votes in the full Senate and Assembly next week, before lawmakers break for summer. Both houses have to pass the bills before Murphy could sign them into law.

Numerous Republicans and gun-rights activists oppose the proposals, saying they will simply punish law-abiding citizens and be ignored by criminals, especially because firearms flowing in from out of state are used in most gun crimes here.

But state Senate President Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, said Thursday he worked “tirelessly” with fellow leaders to “craft a balanced approach to this legislation.” Many of the bills have been amended in recent days to help secure passage.

“Gun violence is not a simple problem,” Scutari said before the Senate Judiciary Committee approved seven of the proposals. “Obviously, illegal guns are a big, big part of it. But also, there are a lot of safety measures we do need to take.”

The question now, however, is whether the Supreme Court’s ruling Thursday will give New Jersey lawmakers pause. The decision was released in the middle of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the bills.

The court struck down New York’s concealed carry law, a move that could have far-reaching impacts in New Jersey, a state with a similarly restrictive law regulating who can carry firearms in public. Lawmakers and experts say the decision could lead to some of the state’s other stringent gun laws being challenged in court.

Cryan said he expects lawmakers to examine “the pitfalls” before moving forward next week with these measures.

“I think one of the things we’re gonna have to decide as a legislature is: How much do you want to move forward in light of that?” the senator said. “I’m of the absolute belief that you move forward with what’s best for the people you represent.”

Murphy said Thursday his administration is closely reviewing its options to respond to the Supreme Court’s decision and will “work to ensure that our gun safety laws are as strong as possible while remaining consistent with this tragic ruling.”

The governor scheduled a news conference at his office in Trenton on Friday morning to discuss the matter.

New Jersey already has the second-strongest gun laws in the U.S., after California, according to rankings by the Gifford Law Center. That includes laws banning automatic weapons and limiting magazines to 10 rounds.

Murphy and the Legislature enacted two bill packages during his first term to further tighten the state’s gun laws. In April 2021, the governor introduced this third package.

But most of the measures languished in the Legislature — most notably in the Senate — especially after a tense November election in which Republicans gained seven seats, apparently dampening Democrats’ appetite to pass potentially controversial legislation.

The national debate over gun reform, however, got new life in the wake of the recent mass shootings.

“Thoughts and prayers are worthless,” Murphy said last month. “Action is the only thing of value.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate has begun acting on new bipartisan federal gun measures in recent weeks.

The debate reached Trenton this week as legislative committees heard testimony on New Jersey’s bills. State Sen. Ed Durr, R-Gloucester, a proponent of rolling back New Jersey’s firearm laws, called for legislators Thursday to “leave the guns alone.”

“The Second Amendment allows for people’s rights,” Durr said. “You’ve already restricted law-abiding citizens’ rights, and I’m asking you to stop.”

Scutari noted that he himself is a gun owner.

“I believe in that right,” the Senate president told Durr. “But it’s not without restriction.”

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said in a statement Wednesday that New Jersey “continues to lead the nation on fair and robust common-sense gun safety thanks to the governor and legislature’s partnership that has made public safety a priority.”

“People in every New Jersey community deserve nothing less than to feel safe,” Coughlin said.

Darin Goens, the state director of the National Rifle Association, said New Jersey is “scraping the bottom of the barrel” with these measures.

“This isn’t making anybody safer, and nobody should be under the illusion that it does,” Goens said.

Cryan said Thursday he was “almost speechless” that there isn’t unanimous support for some of these bills, including one that would require firearm training to obtain a gun purchaser’s ID card.

“Just to know how to handle a weapon lawfully and safely?” said the senator, a former Union County sheriff. “This is a weapon. It takes people’s lives. ... We’re not asking for the world here. We’re asking you to know how to handle a weapon. Is that so hard?”

State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, suggested that proposal in particular could face a court challenge over whether it’s constitutional.

The eight bills most likely to land on Murphy’s desk would:

  • Require training for people to receive a gun purchaser ID in the state and to renew that card every four years. (A4370)
  • Ban the future sales certain .50 caliber rifles in the state. It would not apply to antique firearms, and current owners of such weapons would need to register them and pay a $50 fee. (A4366)
  • Require gun owners who move to New Jersey to obtain a firearm purchaser ID card and register their guns within 60 days. (A1179)
  • Require ammunition manufacturers and dealers to keep a detailed electronic record of sales and report them to the State Police. (A1302)
  • Amend the state’s public nuisance laws to prohibit the gun industry from endangering the safety or health of the public through its sale, manufacturing, importing, or marketing of guns. (A1765)
  • Require retailers in the state to use micro-stamping technology to put serial numbers on guns once the state attorney general determines they are commercially available.(A4368)
  • Increase penalties in the state related to manufacturing of “ghost guns.” (A4367)
  • Limit the possession of body armor in the state and require it be registered in certain circumstances. (A4369)
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published this page in News and Politics 2022-06-24 02:34:32 -0700