Senate sends sweeping gun bill to governor’s desk in narrow vote

By: - December 19, 2022 7:18 pm

Democrats approved new restrictions on where weapons can be carried, restrictions Republicans warned would not withstand a constitutional challenge. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Senate Democrats approved a set of sweeping new gun regulations over fierce Republican objections Monday, sending the bill to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk months after the U.S. Supreme Court limited states’ ability to restrict when gun owners can carry their firearms in public.

Lawmakers cleared the legislation with 21 yes votes — the minimum needed for a bill in the chamber to advance — and 16 no votes. Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-Hudson), who is not seeking reelection next year, was the only member of his party who voted against the measure.

After the vote, Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) said Democrats felt an obligation to get the bill, which he called “a well-thought-out piece of legislation,” passed before the holiday break.

The measure, which the governor is expected to sign, would raise a series of fees associated with gun ownership — drastically, in some cases — and bar guns from a broad range of public spaces, including government buildings, polling places, and schools. Guns would also be barred from any private property where the property owner has not allowed them to be carried.

The measure would also remove a strict standard that required New Jersey gun owners to show a justifiable need to carry a handgun. Lawmakers say that restriction would not withstand a court challenge after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar New York law in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen.

Other portions of the bill would limit some people from obtaining firearms, including those who have been committed for mental health issues, voluntarily or involuntarily.

It would also expand training requirements for those wishing to purchase handguns and would require gun owners to purchase liability insurance.

Sen. Tony Bucco (R-Morris) said the state’s insurance commissioner told him she is unaware of any carriers in the state who offer such insurance.

“So today, we could vote on a piece of legislation that establishes a requirement that no one in the state can meet,” Bucco said.

No Democrats spoke on the floor in favor of the bill, though they have previously said it is meant to ensure gun violence remains a relative rarity in New Jersey.

The insurance requirement and the bill’s heightened fees have spurred charges from gun rights activists that the bill, if signed, would price poor residents — particularly those of color — out of gun ownership.

Other critics say the measure would lead to criminal charges against law-abiding gun owners, noting those who carry a handgun in a prohibited place would face between three and five years in jail and fines of up to $15,000.

“The bill creates a complicated and expensive process to get the carry permit, then denies the permit holders the ability to even use the permit they just worked so hard to get,” said Sen. Ed Durr (R-Gloucester).

Lawmakers amended the bill in October to add language they said would prevent prosecutions of gun owners who make a “brief and incidental entry” into a place where guns are banned, but opponents have argued it leaves too much to judicial discretion. The term is not defined within state law.

Lawsuits on the horizon

Monday’s vote hardly ends the state’s bid to regulate guns under new Supreme Court precedent. Multiple groups have signaled — or said outright — they will challenge the bill on constitutional grounds.

A similar law enacted in New York after the Supreme Court struck down the state’s prior gun laws has faced multiple suits since Gov. Kathy Hochul signed it in July. While lower courts have issued injunctions barring enforcement of that law in three separate cases, federal appellate courts have allowed authorities to continue enforcing the law in each case.

The Democratic backers of New Jersey’s gun bill have said they are confident the legislation would withstand judicial scrutiny, but they still included a provision making the law severable, meaning a ruling invalidating one portion of the bill would leave others in place.

Republicans are less convinced.

“If this bill was about training people who were going to be awarded a concealed weapon, I would be 100% with you because I think very significant training is needed,” said Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Union). “But to take away the complete right that the Bruen decision has given, it’s an extreme decision by this majority.”

Two Democrats, Sens. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) and Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex), were not present for Monday’s voting session. Greenstein is a prime sponsor of the bill.

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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.