New Jersey Governor Chris Christie answers a question during a campaign event in Manville, New Jersey, Monday, May 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
On Friday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie refused to sign three closely watched gun control bills, including a ban on .50 caliber sniper rifles similar to one Christie himself called for earlier this year. Christie’s decision, announced late in the evening, indicates that his pivot from moderate governor to contestant in the GOP presidential primaries is underway, if after-hours and off the record.
Christie fully rejected the ban on .50 caliber rifles, five-foot-long snipers that can be loaded with palm-length cartridges designed to penetrate heavy armor a mile away; and that are, according to Christie, necessary for “recreational pastimes.” While Christie proposed outlawing the sale of these weapons in April, he wrote to the General Assembly that banning them outright would “serve only to confuse law-abiding gun owners with the threat of imprisonment.” In fact, the law would give gun owners a year in which to register, and then legally keep, any .50 calibers currently in their possession.
Christie carved up the two other bills and sent them back to the legislature with conditional vetoes. From a bill that supporters called a “national model” for overhauling how states conduct background checks and issue firearm permits, Christie cut provisions to digitally embed firearm permits in a gun owner’s driver’s license, to include private sales in the instant background check system and to require prospective gun owners to take a short safety course.
“None of the technology necessary for this system exists,” Christie said of the measure that would link firearm permits with state ID.
Christie also gutted a law requiring state officials to report data about lost and stolen firearms, along with those seized in association with a crime, to federal databases.
At a press conference today, gun control advocates criticized Christie for “put[ting] politics over safety” and for being “courageous for his place in the Republican Party, but not for the residents of New Jersey.” Even before the Sandy Hook shootings, 65 percent of New Jersey residents reported being “very concerned” about gun violence, and the same percentage put a higher priority on gun control than on maintaining an individual’s right to own a firearm. While Christie signed ten other gun-related measures into law last week, none were as crucial to advocates or as hotly contested within the pro-gun community as the bills he vetoed. Still, with his re-election approaching, Christie’s position in New Jersey is solid.
As my colleague George Zornick wrote earlier this month, it’s conservative Republicans nationwide to whom Christie will have to defend his record should he seek the presidential nomination in 2016, and a majority of these voters say they won’t vote for a candidate with whose gun policy they disagree. As governor of a state with some of the country’s strictest gun laws, Christie has already given the gun lobby plenty of fodder with which to attack him. So it isn’t clear that Friday’s vetoes will do much more to protect him from the far right than they will to damage his reputation as a straightforward and independent executive.
Speaking to the Republican National Committee the day before declining to sign the legislation, Christie offered a pre-emptive explanation for his gun control about-face: “I’m in this business to win,” he said. “I am going to do anything I need to do.”
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