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.
In contrast to his bombastic and supposedly straight-talking approach, Christie has maintained total silence on these gun bills, and has not giving any indication about what he’s going to do. He vetoed only one of them, without any comment—a bill that would have required state pension funds to divest from businesses involved in the manufacture or sale of guns.
But he can’t punt forever. The bills automatically become law if he doesn’t veto them within forty-five days of passage. Christie’s office told The Nation that he will take action on all pending legislation, including the gun bills, within ten days from now—but did not give any indication what the governor will do. The dilemma Christie faces has serious implications for not only his political future, but also for the evolution of national gun control politics post–Sandy Hook.
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Four bills are at the forefront of the debate in New Jersey. One is the .50-caliber gun ban. Another crucial measure—and the one with the highest potential impact on the national gun control debate—is a measure passed on June 27 that state legislators hailed as a “national model” for universal background checks. It was steered through the legislature by Senate President Stephen Sweeney.
The bill, S.2737, would institute background checks for private gun sales in the state, even between two people who are not gun dealers, and would require that all prospective gun owners attend a gun safety training class. It would also replace the current paper cards and permits that New Jersey issues to gun owners with digitized cards embedded in the state driver’s license, or issued separately by state police.
Two other highly visible measures would ban people on the federal terror watch list from buying guns, and also require New Jersey law enforcement to feed information on lost or stolen guns into the federal background check database. Other lower-profile measures give people with illegal weapons 180 days to dispose of them; establish a school security task force; upgrade penalties for transferring guns to minors and for gun trafficking; and declare violence a public health crisis and establish a commission to study it.
Earlier this year, there was some reason to believe Christie would embrace gun control, and that he was responsive to the changing politics around the issue.
After National Rifle Association vice president Wayne LaPierre held an infamous, defiant press conference in the wake of the Newtown shooting, and released a television advertisement blasting President Obama for sending his daughters to a school with security guards while rejecting the NRA’s plan for national school security, Christie made waves by calling LaPierre out.
“To talk about the president’s children or any public officer’s children who have, not by their own choice, but by requirement, to have protection to use that somehow, to try and make a political point I think is reprehensible,” Christie said.
He also established a commission to study gun-violence, and acting on its recommendations, issued his own gun control plan two days after the US Senate failed to pass the much-debated Manchin-Toomey gun plan.
In fact, Christie’s plan featured some of the very measures now sitting on his desk, including the government-issued gun permits and the .50-caliber weapons ban.
But at the same time, Christie was also hedging his bets. He didn’t call out the fundamentals of the NRA’s political stance, just LaPierre’s decorum. In that same news conference, Christie also employed some of the carefully coded language commonly used by politicians who essentially oppose real gun control. “If we focus just on calling this gun control in my view we are missing out on the bigger story,” he said. “We have to look at violence control.”
And Christie’s current—and total—silence on the legislature’s bills, including some very non-controversial measures and ones he himself proposed, shows that he may not be the gung-ho reformer that some thought back in the spring.
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As Christie weighs his decision, he’s feeling pressure from several directions, both in his state and outside of it, and from reformers and pro-gun activists.
Most immediately, he has a gubernatorial re-election that’s twelve weeks away. Christie holds a whopping thirty-two-point lead in that race, and it’s extremely unlikely that even a straight veto of all gun measures would cost him the election. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a treacherous issue for Christie in the long-term, who still must govern a blue state for at least a couple more years, and who relies heavily on his broad bipartisan support at home as a key selling point to national voters.
Sixty-five percent of New Jerseyans are “very concerned” about gun violence, with the same amount placing a higher priority on gun control instead of an individual’s right to own a weapon, according to a statewide poll taken last year—before Newtown happened. A majority in that poll also said the state needed tougher gun laws.
Christie’s Democratic opponent for governor, State Senator Barbara Buono, who was a principal sponsor of two of the four marquee gun control measures, and voted for all of them, has launched some withering attacks on Christie’s gun reform stance.
In January, after his “State of the State” address, in which he didn’t mention gun control at all, Buono told reporters that Christie “seems to duck what I see as an escalating fight to take guns off the street. It borders on reprehensible.”
When Christie released his gun reform plan earlier this year, Buono dismissed it as a “shallow plan that does nothing” and said Christie wasn’t catering to his constituents but rather wanted to “make sure it plays well with all the voters in the cornfields of Iowa.” Her key beef is that, while his commission recommended expanded background checks, Christie didn’t make it part of his plan.
Her campaign platform calls for action beyond even what the legislature has passed, including lowering New Jersey’s existing ammunition ban to include all clips with more than ten rounds, instead of fifteen, and mandating that all ammunition sales, like all gun sales in the state, be conducted face to face.
But of course, the politics among Republican voters nationally is much different than New Jersey. If Christie runs for president and faces those voters, particularly very conservative voters in the early states of Iowa and South Carolina, he could be in for tough sledding if he signs some of the gun measures. A May poll by the Pew Research Center found that 47 percent of self-identified conservative Republicans would not vote for a candidate whom they disagreed with about gun policy, even if they agreed with him or her on most other issues. Forty-two percent would.
Already, pro-gun activists in primary states are warning Christie. Last week, Pro-Gun New Hampshire, which identifies as the “most respected Second Amendment group” in the first-in-the-nation primary state, urged its members to write Christie and tell him to veto those four gun control bills. “If you want to know what kind of president he’d be, watch what he does as governor,” the group’s website says.
“This is an acid test,” Sam Cohen, executive vice president of Pro-Gun New Hampshire, later told Reuters. “If he decides to support these horrible bills, then we in New Hampshire are going to do everything we can to tell our voters not to vote for him in the New Hampshire primary.”
It’s a tough spot for Christie to be in. Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University who follows Christie closely, told The Nation that she thinks an across-the-board veto of the gun measures isn’t a good option for Christie because he badly wants to “run up the score” on Buono to enhance his 2016 chances, and that New Jersey is too dominated by urban politics and concerns for Christie to be that rigid.
“Given that political context, it is highly unlikely that the governor will purely kow-tow to Pro-Gun New Hampshire, or any other group, given the fact that he’s up for re-election,” Harrison said. She predicts that Christie will sign most of the bills, but single out one or two for veto, and announce that veto “with great fanfare.”
“He kind of gets the [public relations] hit of vetoing this measure because it has some flaws, and then allowing the others to become law,” she said.
But Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, wasn’t so sure Christie would feel compelled to moderate. “He won’t let them become law,” Baker told The Nation. “That may cause some difficulties for him in the state, but it will definitely boost his standing with conservative groups nationally.”
Baker thinks Christie will attempt to smooth his veto by citing the states already tough gun laws. “I think that he characterizes [the pending bills] as frills, as feel-good measures, that are simply as trying to pile on what is already a pretty stringent set of gun laws.”
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What Christie does could have long-term effects on the gun control debate. If he signs even some tough gun measures, he will have little choice but to defend those bills during the 2016 Republican primaries. Perhaps that will allow a forceful—and with Christie, one would expect no less—defense of sensible gun control on the national stage, and one directed at his own party. It would make the primary more difficult for Christie, but in the general election broad support for sensible gun control awaits, as well as some bipartisan credibility.
Before any of that happens, Christie could have a huge impact on the gun control debate in Washington. As we reported earlier this month, Senate majority leader Harry Reid said the Senate will take up background checks one more time before the 2014 midterms. If proponents of the bill can say that even Chris Christie signed background check measures into law, it strengthens the reform momentum in Congress. No doubt the governor knows this. But does he welcome, or fear, that leadership position?
UPDATE: Early Thursday afternoon, Christie’s office announced that he had signed ten of the measures into law, including tough new penalties for gun trafficking and transferring weapons to minors, as well as the measure that disqualifies people on the federal terror watchlist from buying guns. He attached a signing statement to the terror-watchlist bill, warning the federal government not to apply “improper scrutiny” and be “circumspect in its application of the law.”
The two high-profile bills that would ban .50-caliber weapons and institute the “national model” for gun background checks remain unsigned, but Christie’s office told The Nation that the bills are still under review and “you cannot make any assumptions at this time on how they will be treated.”
“These commonsense measures will both strengthen New Jersey’s already tough gun laws and upgrade penalties for those who commit gun crimes and violate gun trafficking laws,” read a statement from Christie. “As elected leaders, our first duty is to maintain public safety, and these new laws will help reduce gun violence and keep our streets and communities safer.”
A full list of the measures Christie signed:
S-1279/A-4179 (Turner, Norcross/Mainor, Singleton, Johnson)—Upgrades penalty for unlawfully transferring a firearm to an underage person; permits transfer for instruction and training
SCS for S-2430/ACS for A-3690 (Lesniak, Turner/Cryan. Coutinho, Gusciora, Tucker, Mainor, Quijano, Sumter) - Declares violence a public health crisis and establish “Study Commission on Violence”
S-2468/A-4180 (Norcross, Bateman/Wilson) – Authorizes impoundment of motor vehicles for certain crimes and offenses
S-2719/ACS for A-3953, 3854 (Norcross, Gill, Allen/Singleton, Oliver, Eustace, Spencer, Sumter, Caride)—Enhances penalties for certain firearms offenses; designated as Anti-Gun Trafficking Act of 2013.
S-2720/A-4181 (Weinberg/Johnson)—Clarifies that information concerning the total number of firearms purchaser identification cards and permits to purchase a handgun issued in a municipality are public records
S-2804/A-4152 (Turner, Sweeney/Wilson, Johnson) – Upgrades certain unlawful possession of firearms to first degree crime; revises certain penalties under the “Grave Act”
A-3687/S-2485 (Stender, Fuentes, Quijano/Scutari, Gill) – W/STATEMENT – Disqualifies person named on federal Terrorist Watchlist from obtaining firearms identification card or permit to purchase handgun
A-3717/SCS for S-2492 (Lampitt, Singleton, Eustace, Gusciora, Johnson/Buono, Gill)—Requires submission of certain mental health records to National Instant Criminal Background Check System
A-3788/S-2552 (Rible, Dancer, A.M. Bucco, McHose, Webber/Van Drew, Oroho)—Codifies regulation exempting firearms records from State’s open public records law
A-3796/S-2722 (Mainor/Norcross)—Provides 180-day window for persons to dispose of certain unlawfully possessed firearms
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