Nine gun bills, four of which are part of Gov. Phil Murphy’s original gun control package and five of which are new as of this week, cleared the Assembly Judiciary Committee today, marking the first major step towards getting new gun legislation through the legislature before the summer recess begins.
The bills, most of which passed on 3-2 party-line votes, make a wide range of changes to New Jersey’s already strict gun laws. If signed into law, the bills would raise the minimum age for firearms purchaser identification cards (FPICs) from 18 to 21, require FPIC holders to renew their license every four years, and give the attorney general increased leeway to take legal action against the gun industry, among many other things.
“New Jersey continues to lead the nation on fair and robust common-sense gun safety thanks to the governor and legislature’s partnership that has made public safety a priority,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) said in a statement shortly after the bills passed. “People in every New Jersey community deserve nothing less than to feel safe. Today’s bills further our commitment.”
Today’s committee meeting kicks off what may end up being a frenzied period of negotiations and committee hearings; only five legislative days remain before legislators depart for the summer.
Seven of the nine bills discussed today will come before the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee tomorrow in a meeting that wasn’t even scheduled until today – an eighth was already passed out of committee two weeks ago – and five of them will also have a second Assembly hearing in the Assembly Appropriations Committee tomorrow.
Murphy, a longtime proponent of far-reaching gun safety measures, is likely to sign any gun bill that does pass the legislature. Though the governor hasn’t officially taken a stance on the five bills from outside his package, his office was seemingly involved in their creation, and three of the five are very similar to bills that were in his original package.
But there’s no guarantee everything the governor wants passed will make it to his desk. The Senate Law and Public Safety Committee isn’t discussing the proposal to raise the FPIC age from 18 to 21, indicating that bill doesn’t have the necessary votes in the Senate, and neither chamber has scheduled a hearing for the Murphy-backed New Jersey Safe Storage of Firearms Act, which was originally on today’s Assembly committee agenda but was later dropped.
Republicans, for their part, have signaled opposition to the package overall, although Assemblymembers Robert Auth (R-Old Tappan) and Vicky Flynn (R-Holmdel), the two Republican members of the Judiciary Committee, voted in favor of one proposal and abstained on another (Flynn also abstained on a third bill that Auth opposed).
“[The Democratic] narrative that the government restricting our freedom somehow makes everyone safer is a lie,” Auth and Flynn said in a statement sent by the Assembly GOP office. “Criminals ignore gun laws. New Jersey needs to look at going after the bad guys, not the responsible gun owners.”
Their criticisms were shared at today’s hearing by a number of gun advocates and lobbyists, who said that the bills infringe on constitutional rights without doing anything to meaningfully reduce gun violence.
“When you demonize a tool, criminals ignore that – they do what they want,” testified Scott Bach, the executive director of the New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs, on a bill to ban .50 caliber weapons. “The only people who follow that are law-abiding citizens. [And] if you’re successful enough in demonizing a tool that that tool is eliminated, criminals find another tool. It doesn’t stop the criminal mind, and it doesn’t stop criminal behavior.”
What the package of bills really represents, National Rifle Association lobbyist Darin Goens said, is legislation for legislation’s sake.
“In New Jersey, we’ve passed every gun bill there is,” Goens said. “There’s nothing left. We’re scraping the bottom of the barrel… This isn’t making anybody safer, and nobody should be under the illusion that it does.”
But activists from the Brady Campaign, Moms Demand Action, and other gun control organizations pushed back, urging legislators to vote yes on all nine bills and arguing that shootings like those in Uvalde and Buffalo showed the need for even stronger gun regulations than the state already has.
“New Jersey has, according to the Giffords Law Center, the second-strongest gun safety laws in the country, and corresponding with that we have the third-lowest per capita rate of gun violence,” said the Rev. Bob Moore of the Coalition for Peace Action. “We’re not an island, and we can’t protect ourselves entirely from guns that might come into this state. But by making it more difficult for someone to get and use a gun in a violent way, I think we are safer.”
“One of my favorite things about New Jersey is that this legislature has taken gun violence so seriously that at this point you are starting to pivot from not only reactive pieces of legislation, … [but also] proactive pieces of legislation to prevent future tragedies from happening,” added Camden Weber of the Brady Campaign.
As usually happens with controversial bills, today’s entire performance will likely be repeated at both of tomorrow’s committee hearings, with many of the same players on both sides. But the real fight will be behind the scenes, as legislative leadership works out which bills have the votes to rocket through the legislature in the next week and which will be left behind.