The arrest of a man found in a parking lot of a Westfield elementary school holding a .45-caliber handgun loaded with hollow-point bullets will likely impact an already competitive race for State Assembly in the 21st district, where one of the state’s top gun rights supporters is seeking re-election.
Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) is well-known in his home town, but his bid for re-election hinge upon whether his neighbors are less tolerant of the “Funniest Lawyer in New Jersey” now that his 100% rating from the National Rifle Association is expected to become a campaign issue.
The occurrence on Thursday sent shock waves through the suburban town, where the national issue of gun violence hit home. Tamaques Elementary School was placed on lockdown and students attending an after-school session were held in place until after 5:30 PM.
“What has become of our nation that teachers and students must go to school wondering ‘Am I next?’” said Democratic Assembly candidates Lisa Mandelblatt and Stacey Gunderman in a Tweet.
Bramnick made no public statements on the arrest, instead using social media to promote a book signing next week in Westfield.
Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-Summit) has an NRA rating of 93%.
In 2017, Bramnick was rated A+ by the Association of New Jersey Rifle & Pistol Clubs. Munoz was rated A.
One independent political expert expects gun control to drive voter turnout in the 2019 mid-term elections.
“With recent polls finding as many as three-quarters of New Jersey voters favoring tougher gun laws and only about 20 percent opposed, the strategic implications are pretty straightforward,” said Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “Support from the NRA is even dicier than usual at a time when it is taking more extreme positions than it has historically taken, such as opposing expanded background check systems.”
“This year’s off- off election is one in which small groups of highly motivated voters can have a disproportionate impact,” said Rasmussen.
Rasmussen said that a strong NRA rating has diverse effects in different parts of the state.
Michael Testa, Jr., a Republican State Senate candidate in a more conservative Cape May/Cumberland district, recently held a press conference at Butch’s Gun World, the site of a revolt by New Jersey gun owners against Gov. Jim Florio’s ban on semi-automatic weapons in 1990, Rasmussen noted.
“Obviously, LD-21 is an entirely different story, where you’d expect fewer NRA members and more voters belonging to groups with goals that directly conflict with the NRA’s agenda.
An April 2019 Rutgers-Eagleton poll showed that most New Jerseyans don’t view gun violence as a pressing issue, but they still fear falling victim to it.
The poll found 23% of residents were very worried — 28% said they were somewhat worried — about gun violence affecting them or someone they know. Roughly equal portions of respondents, 22% and 27% respectively, said they were not too worried or not worried at all about the same.
“While New Jerseyans as a whole may not view gun violence as a major problem, it is a very real and significant concern for certain groups in the state,” Eagleton Poll Director Ashley Koning said in April. “Experience with and concerns about gun violence are more prevalent among black residents, lower income residents, less educated residents, and those who live in urban areas.”
Following the arrest of Delaware resident Thomas J. Wilkie, who had two additional loaded magazines of ammunition and another 130 rounds in his car, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Rocky Hill) said that he was grateful that a potential mass shooting was avoided.
“But I struggle to take comfort in the knowledge that Tamaques Elementary students and teachers were able to return home safely last night when incidents like this one have become so common that we respond with passing indifference,” Malinowski said. “I’m long past done with thoughts and prayers. We need to be outraged and stay outraged until parents all over this country can send their children to school without fear.”
On the morning of the Westfield arrest, the Assembly Judiciary Committee approved five gun control bills, including one that would require smart guns be fired only by their designated owners.
The NRA called New Jersey “a state already notorious for its extreme and oppressive firearm laws.”
Republican State Chairman Doug Steinhardt came to the support of gun owners on Friday morning, chastising Democrats and members of his own party for being concerned about voters’ responses to further restrictions on gun ownership.
“It’s time that New Jersey Republicans stop worrying about who they might offend and start standing up for what they believe in. That includes protecting the rights of New Jersey’s legal gun owners,” Steinhardt said. “Democrats are waging an all-out war on gun ownership and ignoring the scourge of gun violence. While they demand broader restrictions on legal owners, they turn their blind eye toward common sense policing that would identify and punish violent offenders.”
Bramnick and Munoz have not said how they will vote on the gun safety bills if the package reaches the Assembly floor, but the two Republicans Bramnick appointed to the committee – Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris Township) and Erik Peterson (R-Franklin) – voted no on all five measures.