New Jersey Democrats back Obama, gun-control measures

New Jersey’s Democrats have been joining President Obama in calling for gun violence to be considered a health crisis requiring expanded mental-health programs, tougher federal gun laws and a tightening of the state’s already strict gun regulations.

Democratic legislators have introduced about a dozen bills, some of which overlap, which they believe addresses what they see as a public outcry in the wake of the December 14 mass shooting in Newtown, CT.

These bills call for restrictions on magazine size for semi-automatic weapons, a ban on online and mail-order ammunition purchase, creation of a regulatory system to track ammunition sales, a requirement that handgun ammunition be stamped with a serial number, the inclusion of a mental-health provision in the state’s background-check law and the creation of a commission to study causes of violence in the state.

Law-enforcement officials have said that the Newtown shooter, Adam Lanza, may have been mentally disturbed. Lanza took the lives of 20 children ages 6 and 7, as well as six adults plus his own mother before shooting himself at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Lanza had three guns in his possession, all of them taken from his mother’s home: a semiautomatic AR-15 assault rifle made by Bushmaster and pistols made by Glock and Sig Sauer.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Gov. Chris Christie has said he would consider additional “common sense” legislation regarding guns and is particularly interested in discussing the mental-health issues raised by the Newtown tragedy.

Obama on Wednesday announced plans to introduce legislation which would ban military-assault type weapons containing magazines with more than 10 rounds of ammunition, require universal background checks for gun purchasers, and provide money for the treatment of mental illness and expanded school security measures. He also signed executive orders that would tighten existing regulations.

Democrats in the state Legislature applauded the president’s announcement, promising to strengthen the state’s gun laws.

“President Obama’s plan is common sense, and I am hopeful Congress will do what’s right and approve this package,” Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) said in a press release. “We’ve mourned far too often to stand idle at this moment in history.”

She said the Assembly would move forward soon with a comprehensive package of bills based on various bills already introduced by members of both legislative houses.

“Many Assembly members have put forth outstanding ideas to tackle gun violence and mental health services, and we’ll be advancing a strong package to make our state a safer place,” she said.

Eight bills (see Related Links) have been introduced in both houses of the Legislature since Jan. 8, along with four resolutions.

Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union) said the various pieces of legislation show that the state is prepared to engage in a comprehensive conversation about what can be viewed as an epidemic. There is a need, he said, “in the state and the country for a reflective debate in which we look at every proposal and we put together a comprehensive package. No one measure is a cure-all.” The National Rifle Association has vowed to block the proposals and has blamed violent movies and video games for creating a culture of violence. The organization has called for stationing an armed police officer in every school and allowing teachers and other school employees to carry weapons.

NRA officials at the state and national level did not respond to several telephone calls and emails seeking comment on the New Jersey legislation. But on its Web site, the organization’s Institute for Legislative Action said “Anti-Gun legislators (were taking) advantage of recent tragedies to introduce dangerously far-reaching legislation that will not stop crime, but will punish law-abiding citizens for the violent acts of criminals.”

The Legislature, it added, “has made restricting our Second Amendment rights a priority this session” even though none of the “proposed legislation will affect lawbreakers.”

“Gun control has not worked because criminals, by definition, do not obey the law,” the NRA-ILA said, in an appeal to gun owners. “Your help will be needed this session to prevent law-abiding gun owners from being punished with another round of gun control and overburdened with taxes and fines that will have zero impact on public safety or violent crime.”

The NRA did issue a statement on the Obama proposals that echoed many of the arguments it made against the New Jersey bills, saying that the organization would “continue to focus on keeping our children safe and securing our schools, fixing our broken mental-health system, and prosecuting violent criminals to the fullest extent of the law.”

“Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation,” the release said. “Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected and our children will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy.”

During a press conference in Bradley Beach earlier this week, Christie reiterated his belief that the problem is larger than the issue of guns.

“Gun control needs to be talked about and if there are common sense measures that need to be taken to enhance our safety in this state, I’m happy to consider those,” he said. “But if we don’t deal with the availability and the stigma attached to mental-health counseling, if we don’t deal with the stigma attached to and the availability of substance-abuse counseling and if we don’t deal with the issue of violence in media and especially in video games, then we are shortchanging this conversation.”

He said he is “happy to talk about” additional gun control measures “as part of an overall approach because what we’re trying to do here, as I understand it, is not gun control. It’s violence control and that’s what we’re really trying to accomplish.”

That will require, he said, “a more effective way to deal with the mentally ill who commit violent acts.” There is a need for greater treatment opportunities and that, when necessary, those who are mentally ill and pose a danger need to be committed and taken off the streets, he added.

“The fact of the matter is that that young man in Connecticut that has spurred all of this current conversation was obviously deeply mentally disturbed,” Christie said. “Why was he not getting treatment? You have to ask yourself that question. Why was he not getting treatment? Why was he still housed at home with his mother with access to those type of weapons when he is clearly mentally disturbed? Why was he spending hours a day, according to reports, in his basement playing Call of Duty, an extraordinarily violent video game that desensitizes people in my view to the real effects of violence?

“Why did you have in Camden a young woman who was high on a combination of marijuana and PCP who decapitated her own child and then committed suicide? Now the fact of the matter is that that wasn’t a crime as far as I know that involved a gun, but it’s violence, put forward because of substance abuse.”

The governor said he wanted to engage in a broad conversation that takes all issues – “including gun control” – under consideration.

Cryan said he hopes that, by declaring gun violence a mental-health crisis and calling for more services and a study commission, legislators can convince the governor to sign on to their reforms.”Most of the tragedies we’ve seen, not only the nightmare in Newtown but elsewhere, encompass a variety of issues, mental health being one,” he said. “Almost every (mass-shooting) tragedy this country has experienced has had a mental-health component.

“It is time in my view to add those screenings,” he added. “You are holding a firearm. You have the ability to take a life in your hand.”

South Brunswick Police Chief Ray Hayducka, president of the New Jersey State Chiefs of Police Association, said expanded background checks would require additional resources from police departments, but the organization has not taken a position on any of the legislation. He said it is reviewing the various bills and plans to offer its professional opinion when ready.

“As police chiefs, we are looking at anything we can do to prevent any acts of violence,” he said. “We are open to anything. We certainly, from an official standpoint, we think it is a good idea to look at it. New Jersey already does have among the strictest gun laws, but if a person is determined to do something the gun laws are not going to stop them. But everything should be part of the conversation. We have to take a logical approach and take into account the cost and what it will take to implement these things.” The state already has among the strictest gun laws in the nation, based on ratings from the Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence and the Legal Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The Brady Campaign gave the state a 72 out of 100 on its 2011 scorecard, which placed it behind only California. The Law Center gave the state an A-minus – one of three states, along with California and Massachusetts to receive the grade.

On Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation — passed overwhelminglywith bipartisan support in both houses of the state Legislature that is being touted as the toughest rules in the nation. The New York Times, in an editorial, said the new rules “could make New York one of the toughest places in the country to buy, sell or own dangerous weapons.”

The New York ban reduces the allowable magazine size from 10 rounds to seven rounds, strengthens background checks to include menta-health issues and imposes stiffer penalties on those who use guns during the commissionof a crime, according to press reports.

The legislation is similar to several of the bills being proposed by New Jersey Democrats. Legislation that would cut the allowable magazine size to five rounds was introduced on Monday by Sens. Richard Codey (D-Essex) and Bob Gordon (D-Passaic), just days after similar legislation that would limit magazine size to 10 rounds had been proposed by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D-Camden).

“The only people who need access to high-capacity magazines are mass murderers, drug dealers and cop killers,” Codey said in a press release. “It is well past time that we banned magazines carrying a dozen bullets. The fact is, military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines do not belong on our neighborhood streets.”

State Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), the only declared Democratic challenger to Christie for the 2013 gubernatorial race, earlier this week called on the governor to follow the lead of Cuomo and Obama and “to have the courage to stand against the right-wing Republican interest groups” and “exhibit some real leadership on this issue.”

“The governor’s positions on gun control are littered with inconsistencies and suffer from neglect,” she said in a press release on Monday announcing that she would be introducing background-check legislation. “In 1995, he called for a ban on assault weapons, but this year, we have only heard him call for a curb on violent video games. Gov. Christie has said New Jersey’s laws are tough enough and only need stricter enforcement, but as U.S. Attorney he ranked 80th out of 94 U.S. Attorneys in gun prosecutions.”

Gun-control advocates support the legislative efforts and believe that the flurry of bills are not a product of a lack of communication among legislators, but a demonstration of commitment to tightening the state’s gun laws.

“In New Jersey, we have been a national leader in gun violence prevention for a long time and we know New Jersey citizens are paying attention to this issue,” said Nicola Bocour, project director for the Coalition for Peace Action’s Ceasefire New Jersey project. “We know more can be done in New Jersey and this is our elected officials’ way of responding quickly and showing they are ready to react.”

Bocour said New Jersey, despite its already strong gun laws, faces some specific challenges, in particular finding ways to combat illegal guns transported from southern states where laws are more lax. She said that regulating ammunition sales – by banning online purchase, by requiring more extensive record-keeping and by limiting magazine size – may be the best approach, absent federal legislation. She said it adds a level of accountability that is currently missing.

“With a ban on online ammunitions sales, people who legally own a gun can go in and legally purchase ammunition,” she said. “If you go back to the illegal guns, you just can’t stockpile ammunition for them by purchasing through Internet anonymously.

“We don’t want people who do buy or possess illegal guns from out of state to be able to arm themselves anonymously with a never-ending supply of firepower.”

NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal