New York court rulings signal trouble for New Jersey’s fresh attempt to regulate guns

By: - October 24, 2022 7:17 am

New Jersey’s effort to establish firearm-free zones could be threatened by rulings against New York's new similar law. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

As Democratic lawmakers race to approve new gun regulations here in New Jersey, observers say federal decisions on New York’s new gun law signal the Garden State may have trouble proving its new restrictions are constitutional.

The fast-tracked bill — which would prohibit guns in about 25 “sensitive places” and create hurdles for people seeking gun licenses — already got a thumbs-up from two Assembly committees last week, is scheduled for another committee vote Monday, and is expected to go before the full Assembly and the Senate’s law and public safety committee for votes on Thursday.

The measure’s quick march to passage comes as two federal judges in New York ruled against that state’s new gun law, most recently on Thursday, when a judge temporarily halted New York’s new ban on guns in houses of worship. That decision came after a separate ruling on Oct. 6 also found parts of New York’s law are unconstitutional.

Eric Ruben, a fellow at New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, said it’s “almost a guarantee” that whatever gun regulation gets passed now will be challenged.

“But there’s a lot of uncertainty about whether or not the new laws will ultimately get struck down or not,” Ruben said.

Assemblyman Joe Danielsen (D-Somerset), the New Jersey bill’s prime sponsor, didn’t respond to a request for comment. Danielsen’s bill doesn’t name houses of worship as a sensitive place but does forbid guns on private property without the owner’s consent.

New Jersey’s nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services issued an opinion saying parts of the bill are “likely” constitutional, Politico New Jersey reported Monday.

Banning guns in sensitive places was one control New Jersey, New York, and other gun-restrictive states scrambled to enact after the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down New York’s concealed carry handgun law, affirming a constitutional right to bear arms.

In that ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, the justices agreed states can prohibit guns in sensitive places.

But they failed to spell out what those places were, aside from schools and government buildings like courthouses, legislative assemblies, and polling places. Officials can’t ban guns in a place merely because it is crowded, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote.

“The Bruen test is indeterminate, so there’s a lot of disagreement and confusion amongst the lower courts,” said Ruben, who’s also an assistant professor of law at SMU Dedman School of Law in Texas.

Ruben pointed out the Oct. 6 decision made the opposite decision on New York’s ban on guns in houses of worship as Thursday’s opinion, upholding it with an exception for those specifically tasked with security there while temporarily halting the ban in other sensitive places such as museums, bars, and Times Square.

“It would be a mistake to take one ruling from one district court in one jurisdiction as the final word on what the Second Amendment means,” Ruben added.

Still, gun rights advocates celebrated Thursday’s decision as a sign that any effort to restrict guns beyond what the nation’s founders intended would fail.

“Although Bruen didn’t give a crisp list of sensitive places, it gave a general guideline, and the guideline is clear. It’s got to be a place where core government functions go on, like a courthouse,” said Scott Bach, president of the Association of New Jersey Rifle & Pistol Clubs. “A public park is not a courthouse. A concert venue is not a courthouse. Your car is not a courthouse. These are all places where the New Jersey legislation would prohibit carry.”

While Bach objects to the bill altogether, he singled out one provision — which appears to empower municipalities to set ordinances declaring gun-free places — as especially problematic.

“They’re basically giving license to 565 municipalities in New Jersey to craft their own separate, inconsistent patchwork of prohibited places,” Bach said.

Since Bruen, more than 300,000 people have applied for carry permits in New Jersey now that they no longer need to prove a “justifiable need” to take guns beyond their home or business, as state law has long required.

Bach’s association already has two lawsuits against the state aimed at overturning the state’s bans on assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines.

They’ll file a third if New Jersey lawmakers pass the sensitive places bill — or any other gun restrictions, Bach vowed.

“The right to carry is here, and it’s here to stay, and everybody’s got to get used to that,” Bach said. “This angry fist-shaking by various states like New York and New Jersey is going to blow up in their faces. They can pretend that Bruen doesn’t say what it says, but it’s only going to come back to bite them.”


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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.