Federal judge asked to block more of N.J.’s new gun law

State argues law meets standard of U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Bruen

By: - January 27, 2023 6:54 am

Gun rights advocates argued in federal court Thursday for new limits on a New Jersey gun law, parts of which a judge has already blocked. (James Carroll/Getty Images Plus)

A federal judge heard arguments Thursday morning on whether to approve a new set of temporary restrictions to a recently enacted New Jersey gun control law but declined to issue an immediate ruling.

Gun rights advocates have sued New Jersey over the law, charging its prohibitions on guns in so-called sensitive places run afoul of constitutional protections and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bruen decision. The high court’s ruling upended New Jersey’s prior gun laws but allowed authorities to limit the presence of guns in some unspecified areas.

Arguments on Thursday focused on whether Judge Renée Marie Bumb should temporarily enjoin provisions that bar guns in health care facilities, on film shoots, at zoos, and in a host of other places not covered by a restraining order Bumb issued in a separate but related case on Jan 9. The two cases have since been consolidated.

Daniel Schmutter, an attorney for Aaron Siegel and other plaintiffs who launched the broader of the two challenges to the law, argued that state prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons in parking lots of the sensitive places named in the bill would thrust gun owners into a state of uncertainty because it is unclear how that provision applies to shared parking lots.

Schmutter raised a similar issue about multi-use buildings. It is unclear to gun owners whether they can carry a firearm into a building that houses both a doctor’s office and a business where concealed carry is not barred by law, he argued.

The law should say “it’s just a doctor’s office, no other part of the building is prohibited, and if it’s a shared parking lot, the parking lot’s not prohibited,” Schmutter said.

An incidental entry into a prohibited place would shield gun owners from accidental prosecution in such cases, Deputy Solicitor General Angela Cai argued in response.

Gov. Phil Murphy and supporters celebrating in Scotch Plains on Dec. 22, 2022, after Murphy signed a bill implementing new restrictions on gun owners. (Courtesy of New Jersey Governor’s Office)

What is a school

The parties jousted briefly over what institutions would fall under state restrictions on firearms in schools, with the plaintiffs noting the gun law does not define what constitutes a school.

The plaintiffs said that creates uncertainty for a variety of enterprises, including Sunday schools and institutions like the School of Rock, which offers music lessons.

State officials noted the Departments of Education and Higher Education impose regulations on schools that other institutions — like bible study classes, gun safety training courses, and martial arts dojos — are not subject to.

“I don’t think that going to Mrs. Smith’s house for bagpipe lessons, even if she calls it Mrs. Smith’s School of Bagpipes, makes that place a school,” Cai said.

Bumb suggested the two parties come to a definition before a later hearing on preliminary restraints.

Private, government property

Attorneys for the state again defended a provision in the law  — suspended temporarily by Bumb on Jan. 8 — that bars gun owners from carrying weapons on private property whose owner has not expressly given consent. The state said case law surrounding the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution means that some of the issues surrounding the gun bill do not touch on the Second Amendment.

The state argued property owners’ longstanding right to exclude others from their property could be applied to concealed carry permit holders regardless of whether the property owners are aware of the gun owner’s position on guns. State trespassing laws require neither posted signage nor verbal notice, the state noted.

In the Bruen decision, the Supreme Court said gun laws must be consistent with the nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation. Attorneys for New Jersey have argued a 1771 state law barring people from carrying guns on property they don’t own without permission from the property owners shows the new law’s similar provision meets that Bruen standard.

Bumb previously discounted the 1771 law — saying it was an anti-poaching law, not a gun control measure — but Cai argued Thursday that the section of the law barring guns on private property without the owner’s consent makes no mention of poaching, so it remains relevant to the debate over the new gun law.

Schmutter, in response, said the 1771 law is indeed an anti-poaching law, and said its provision about guns on private property was written to support the chief purpose of preserving deer and other game. Legislators frequently draft legislation to support the enforcement of other laws, he noted, citing a current ban on uncased firearms in vehicles. That ban exists because New Jersey bars hunting from vehicles, he said.

“New Jersey is loaded with that kind of regulatory approach. They do it constantly, so it doesn’t shock me that they tried to do it in 1771,” he said.

The state further argued the government could mirror regulations imposed by private businesses while it was competing with those businesses.

“When the government happens to be competing with the private bus service, we don’t think it’s logical to say — and this is all about whether or not the Second Amendment even covers this restriction — it’s not logical to say the government can’t similarly prohibit firearms on public buses,” she said.

Bumb’s prior temporary restraining order blocks enforcement of provisions of the new law that prohibits residents from carrying concealed weapons into public libraries and museums, bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, and large entertainment venues like stadiums and concert halls.

It’s not clear when Bumb will rule on the new temporary restraining order sought by the plaintiffs. After the hearing on the first restraining order, she released a decision four days later.

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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.