Nine-bill gun-safety package advances in Assembly

By: - December 14, 2021 7:05 am

Teska Frisby, a Trenton resident and member of Moms Demand Action, testifies in support of gun-safety bills before the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Dec. 13, 2021. (Photo by Dana DiFilippo/New Jersey Monitor)

A package of bills intended to strengthen the state’s gun laws advanced in the New Jersey Assembly on Monday, including one that would punish gun owners for not locking away their firearms and ammunition separately and another that would allow the state Attorney General to pursue public nuisance violations against gun dealers and manufacturers.

The bills — nine in total — drew a parade of supporters and critics whose impassioned testimony before the Assembly Judiciary Committee stretched nearly four hours.

Gun rights advocates characterized the measures as constitutional infringements that penalize lawful gun owners. Gun foes, on the other hand, argued they were necessary to prevent murders, suicides, accidental shootings, and gun trafficking and help law enforcement better investigate gun crimes.

The committee’s six members voted largely along party lines, with Democrats supporting the measures and Republicans opposing them.

The bill drawing the longest, liveliest debate was the New Jersey Safe Storage of Firearms Act, which would establish requirements and penalties for gun storage. There are none in place now, outside of a law setting penalties when a child accesses improperly stored loaded guns.

The act would repeal that law and require all gun owners to store unloaded firearms in gun safes or locked boxes, with ammunition locked away separately. Penalties range from community service to fourth-degree felony charges.

The act also would allocate $500,000 for the Attorney General’s Office to establish a public awareness campaign about firearm storage requirements and penalties.

Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-Monmouth), the bill’s prime sponsor, implored committee members to pass it, even as she acknowledged it has been “controversial.

“We have tried to make sure that we protect our citizens here,” Downey said. “It seems to be more common sense than anything else.”

The new storage requirements would “slow down” someone who shouldn’t have access to a gun, such as someone contemplating suicide, a toddler who might accidentally shoot a sibling, or a teenager who might take a gun to school, Downey said.

Between 70% to 90% of guns used in youth suicides, unintentional shootings, and school shootings came from households where firearms were improperly stored, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. A 2018 survey by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that more than half of gun owners did not store all their guns safely.

But Assemblyman Robert Auth (R-Bergen), a committee member, countered that the requirements also would slow down a resident trying to defend themselves against a burglar.

“Someone who is being confronted by a home invasion thinks the safest place for their ammunition is in the chamber of their gun,” Auth said. “I think we’re looking at this the wrong way – don’t stop the legal gun owners from protecting themselves.”

Auth and Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips (R-Bergen) voted against all the bills except one intended to safeguard students’ mental health during school security drills. That measure would require administrators to notify teachers and parents ahead of any drill, let students know the drill is not a real emergency, and forbid the use of fake blood, real or prop firearms, or simulated gun shots, explosions, or other things that could traumatize students.

Guns as public nuisance?

The committee also advanced a bill sponsored by Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) that would authorize the Attorney General’s Office to seek a court injunction to stop a gun dealer, manufacturer or anyone else in the gun industry when their sales or marketing become a “public nuisance.”

Robert Nixon is a guns-rights advocate who testified against most of the bills, alternately on behalf the New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs or the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association.

He blasted the bill as wrongly blaming an entire industry for harms caused by others. If passed, he predicted it would be challenged in court.

“This is an abuse of the legal system,” Nixon said. “Imagine suing Ford when one of their vehicles is used in a fatal DUI. We’re talking about selling legal, non-defective products that are in compliance with all laws and regulations.”

But Karen Kanter of Brady United Against Gun Violence of New Jersey said the gun industry plays a role in the epidemic of gun violence and should be held accountable.

“In New Jersey, almost 80% of guns used in crimes are originally purchased outside of the state,” McKeon agreed. “The gun industry has made little effort to help stem the flow of guns to the illegal market through gun shows, flea markets, straw purchasers, and theft. The industry, essentially, has not taken responsibility for its part in the increasing gun violence and its influence through product marketing.”

In New Jersey, almost 80% of guns used in crimes are originally purchased outside of the state.

– Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex)

Another bill that advanced would make firearm purchaser identification (FID) cards valid for four years; under current law, they’re valid indefinitely.

The bill also would require people who inherit firearms to get an FID card within 30 days and require training before a would-be buyer gets a handgun purchase permit or FID card.

Theresa Inacker, New Jersey state director of the DC Project, testified against that bill, saying 30 days is too short a time frame for some people to secure an FID card.

“Are widows a crime problem in this state? Because you’re requiring that widows obtain an FID card within 30 days of the death of their spouse,” Inacker said. “I am a widow, and to me, it unconscionable to do this to them.”

Nixon agreed, saying: “You’re going to make many criminals of people who may not even know they have guns in their possession.”

Kanter applauded the bill’s training requirement.

“It only takes one person who has not been trained to wreak havoc, whether intentionally or unintentionally,” she said.

Other bills advanced would:

Lawmakers have four weeks left to vote on the bills before a new legislative session begins in mid-January.


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.