NJ doubles down on gun control

New Jersey, which has some of the toughest gun control regulations in the country, recently passed a slew of gun control measures and created an office charged with holding firearm manufacturers and sellers accountable.

After decades of mass shootings and federal inaction on gun control, Congress passed a bare minimum gun bill last month (which probably ought to have been in place already) that bars convicted domestic abusers from having guns and invests in mental health, among other things. It’s a start, but it’s also hard not to be cynical about such a tepid response. 

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, ruled last month that New York can no longer require people to prove they have a need to carry a gun in public. New Jersey had a similar stipulation in their public carry regulations, but issued an order reversing the mandate after the Supreme Court decision. A tiptoe forward, a step back.

But amid this frustrating environment, New Jersey, which has some of the toughest gun control regulations in the country, recently doubled down on their commitment to gun control, passing a slew of common-sense measures and creating an office charged with holding firearm manufacturers and sellers responsible when their guns end up in troubled people’s hands.

David Hogg, co-founder of March for our Lives and survivor of the Parkland shooting, said, “The country should look to New Jersey as a model of gun safety,” after the bills were signed, and Nico Bocour, government affairs director of Giffords, called it, “the most comprehensive package championed in the country this year.”

The question now, with a conservative Supreme Court, and the gun lobby’s history of limiting any perceived infringement on the Second Amendment, is how sturdy are NJ’s new gun laws, and when (not if) will they be challenged in court?

The seven gun control bills Gov. Murphy signed into law in July target gun manufacturers and sellers, licensing and training for gun owners, ammunition and gun tracing.

The gun manufacturer and seller rule is a big one. As a result, the state has created the Statewide Affirmative Firearms Enforcement office, which launched this week. It’s the first office of its kind in the nation, tasked with bringing “civil enforcement actions against firearm companies to hold them accountable for violations of the law that harm the health and safety of New Jersey residents.”

Essentially, the new legislation gives this new office the necessary enforcement tools to go after both gun manufacturers and retail dealers when they contribute to creating a public nuisance. A public nuisance is defined as any “​​​​condition which injures, endangers, or threatens to injure or endanger or contributes to the injury or endangerment of the health, safety, peace, comfort, or convenience of others.” So, pretty open-ended.

Gun manufacturers and retailers could be held accountable if, say, someone buys a gun, commits a crime, and it’s determined that it was “reasonably foreseeable” that the person was going to use that gun unlawfully. And the state doesn’t need to prove the gun manufacturer or retailer was acting purposefully ignorant of the potential crime.

But the legislation, and the SAFE office tasked with implementing it, is also forward-looking. For instance, the state Attorney General can issue an injunction on any gun manufacturer or retailer it deems is acting irresponsibly or otherwise outside the law. If the office believes a gun industry member has (or currently is, or will) engage in unlawful activity, it can open an investigation, interview the member under oath and gather records on their activity.

The new rule also takes into account the future of the gun industry. Though many of the high-profile recent mass shooters obtained their weapons legally from in-person retailers, there are an alarming amount of online companies selling make-at-home kits so people can produce unregistered firearms. The SAFE office would likely be charged with taking these companies to task.

“​​We cannot continue down the path we are now on,” said state Senator Nellie Pou. “If gun manufacturers or retailers act in ways that constitute a ‘public nuisance’ in the eyes of the Attorney General they should be held liable for appropriate penalties.”

The other six bills in the gun package hit a range of (common sense) gun reform targets, excuse the pun. One requires gun owners who bought guns out-of-state to register them when they move to NJ. Another tracks ammunition sales in an electronic database. Another requires people to take training, give fingerprints and submit a photo to the state before they buy a handgun, in certain circumstances. And another requires gun sellers to sell firearms with micro-stamping technology—essentially a tool that helps law enforcement determine which guns bullets came from.

As most of the guns used to commit crimes in New Jersey are purchased or otherwise brought in from out-of-state, where gun laws are laxer, the micro-stamping technology gives law enforcement a valuable tool in determining how the gun was procured—although, without its implementation in other states, it’s effect is likely to be limited.

The bills received widespread support, particularly among the state’s blue politicians and gun control advocacy groups. Also, the New Jersey State Police. Noted Col. Patrick J. Callahan:  “As criminals attempt to find new ways to circumvent the laws, we must adjust our tactics to keep illegal guns away from those individuals who have no regard for human life once the trigger is pulled. Our efforts to limit gun violence must be comprehensive as we strive to protect the citizens of New Jersey.”

Predictably, the right thinks these measures have gone too far. Lee Williams of the Second Amendment Foundation said the laws impinge on, of course, the Second Amendment, but also free speech laws, claiming advertising guns is protected speech. He wrote that NJ Acting Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin and governors supporting gun control will have to be “taught that bluster and braggadocio are not an affirmative defense for violating both the Constitution and an opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court.” 

Harrumphed New Jersey’s U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew: “This is not common-sense gun legislation, this is legislation that will make it tougher for law-abiding New Jerseyans to purchase a gun and will not stop criminals from committing gun violence.”

So, there will be lawsuits. Earlier this month, gun advocates sued New Jersey over its assault weapons ban, and they’re sure to challenge at least some pieces of the new gun control package. 

And they may have a receptive audience in the Supreme Court (if the cases, of course, get that far). The New York ruling had a ripple effect on gun laws throughout the country, and signaled the Court is willing to overturn 100-plus-year-old laws based on its unique reading of the Constitution.

But in response to the ruling, NJ tightened its public carry laws, mandating that law enforcement responsible for overseeing gun sales make sure people obtain permits, undergo a background check in which three people vouch for the gun buyer, and that they show a familiarity with firearms, among other restrictions.

What’s clear is that Acting Attorney General Platkin, and New Jersey lawmakers, are willing to force higher courts’ and the gun lobby’s hand with their regulations. And they may continue to do so.

The state legislature is currently considering two bills which would mandate safe storage of guns and increase the age for people to buy rifles and shotguns from 18 to 21. 

Common sense, but is that what’s dictating gun regulations amid ongoing violence?