Sweeping N.J. gun bill clears penultimate vote

Bill meets constitutional requirements while safeguarding the public, Democrats say

By: - December 5, 2022 4:57 pm

Senate President Nicholas Scutari said the bill is Democrats' best attempt to meet constitutional requirements but continue to safeguard the public from unnecessary guns. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

A Senate panel in a party-line vote Monday approved a controversial gun measure that would control where and how New Jerseyans can carry firearms, setting the stage for a pre-Christmas showdown in the Senate.

The bill — which would overhaul the process for obtaining a concealed carry permit, raise various firearm fees, and bar guns from a number of public locations — is New Jersey Democrats’ response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision that struck down a New York law that restricted concealed carry licenses.

“This bill is the best attempt that we’ve been able to come up with to meet that constitutional requirement but continue to safeguard the public from unnecessary guns out there. I mean, the New Jersey I grew up with, you just did not see guns,” Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) said.

The Senate’s budget committee approved the bill by a vote of 8-4, with each of the body’s Republicans opposed. The Senate is expected to bring the legislation to the floor on Dec. 22.

The committee advanced the bill via substitution, a maneuver that aligned the Senate version with its Assembly counterpart, which the lower chamber approved in a 43-29 vote with one abstention shortly before the Thanksgiving break.

It’s not clear what role attendance in the upper chamber will play in the bill’s passage. Democratic absences have snarled the party’s recent attempts to concur with Gov. Phil Murphy’s conditional veto of a bill enacting protections for temporary workers, and it’s unlikely Senate Democrats will have their full caucus in attendance for a voting session three days before Christmas.

But the saga won’t end if the bill reaches Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk and is signed there. Gun rights campaigners have warned they will lodge legal challenges against the legislation on constitutional grounds.

“This is going to be challenged — there’s no doubt, but we believe that it’s struck the right balance,” Scutari said. “And it will meet constitutional muster.”

On top of constitutional arguments, the bill’s opponents have charged the legislation would move gun ownership out of the reach of the state’s low-income residents, particularly those of color. Among other things, the bill calls for tenfold increases to the cost of handgun purchase and firearms purchaser ID card applications, which would cost $20 and $50 under the bill.

Concealed carry permit applications would see the largest raw price increases, rising from $50 to $200.

“Making this process so hard and expensive is a thinly veiled attempt to restrict the rights of the poor, and that has obvious implications in creating a disparate impact on racial and ethnic lines,” said Joe LoPorto of Safe Way Out, a nonprofit that provides security services to domestic violence victims.

Critics have also questioned whether it would succeed at keeping firearms out of the sensitive places named in the bill, like schools, sports stadiums, government buildings, beaches, bars, and a host of others.

“The only people that are going to obey that section of the law are law-abiding citizens. That is to say, they want to carry for self-protection or to protect their friends and neighbors or prevent illegal actions,” said Sen. Sam Thompson (R-Middlesex). “Someone who’s decided they’re going to go somewhere or to shoot somebody, etc., is not going to be concerned that the law says I can’t carry my gun to do it.”

The bill’s proponents say the strict rules are needed to maintain New Jersey’s low rate of firearms deaths. Only two states, Hawaii and Massachusetts, had lower firearm mortality rates than New Jersey in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

New Jersey held the third spot in 2019 as well.

“If guns made us safer, the U.S. would be one of the safest nations in the developed world, not one of the worst,” said Lisa Winkler of Moms Demand Action.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.