New Jersey Governor Chris Christie answers a question during a campaign event in Manville, New Jersey, Monday, May 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
A small group of gun-control activists and state legislators gathered in Linden, New Jersey, last month for a media availability with a classic Jersey backdrop—an airport attracted a steady stream of small airplanes and helicopters flying low overhead, and processing plants and chemical tanks dotted the nearby landscape.
The star of the press conference was a sixty-inch sniper rifle, which local reports said was longer than the folding table on which it sat. The gun is accurate at distances as long as a mile away and fires heavy .50-caliber bullets, including explosive and armor-piercing rounds. It’s also completely legal to purchase the gun in New Jersey—even if someone is on the federal terror watch list. The state’s background check system for weapons does not cross-reference that list.
“Fifty-caliber weapons are not made to shoot people, they’re made to destroy targets,” warned Bryan Miller of New Jerseyans for Safety from Gun Violence. “New Jersey is full of such material targets.”
While potentially catastrophic, a “terrorist” with a .50-caliber gun isn’t the most immediate gun problem in New Jersey. In 2011, 269 people were killed by guns in the state, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report (2012 isn’t completed yet). Gun violence is a sadly routine occurrence in New Jersey’s cities, like Newark, Trenton, Patterson, and Jersey City, which is experiencing a particularly violent summer because of a power struggle among the city’s gangs.
New Jersey already has among the toughest gun laws in the country, but some glaring holes remain. And remarkably, the state legislature has taken action to fix nearly all of them—it has passed fifteen bills that strengthen background checks in the state, ban .50-caliber weapons, and increase penalties on gun trafficking, among other reforms.
But the bills are sitting in limbo on the desk of Governor Chris Christie, politician and former US attorney who likes to project a law-and-order image, but who is ever-mindful of national Republican politics as he contemplates a 2016 presidential run.