New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday began his third major push for new gun control laws since taking office in 2018. He cited rising gun violence in cities across the country, including in parts of New Jersey, which already has some of the nation’s most stringent gun laws.
The governor, a liberal Democrat who is up for reelection this fall, said the measures were “perhaps the most sweeping gun violence prevention package in the nation” and would “guarantee unquestionably that New Jersey will have the strongest gun violence prevention laws in the United States of America.”
Murphy unveiled his proposals at a press conference in Newark, where he was joined by high-ranking lawmakers from both houses of the state Legislature. But at least some of the proposals are likely to hit a wall in the state Senate.
The package has the potential to become the latest spat between Murphy and the more conservative Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who has recently been hesitant to advance some legislation championed by the left, from gun control bills to measures addressing reproductive rights. Indeed, three parts of the proposal passed the Assembly last session but not the Senate.
Like Murphy, currently the only governor on the ballot this fall, all 120 state lawmakers are up for reelection in November. And while gun control has historically been a popular issue for Democrats in New Jersey statewide, it’s a more challenging issue for them in swing legislative districts, especially in the more rural parts of the state — some of which Sweeney represents.
The Giffords Law Center, a gun control advocacy group, already ranks New Jersey as having the second strongest gun laws in the nation, behind only California.
New Jersey has the third lowest firearm mortality rates in the country, according to the CDC, but some of its cities, like Trenton and Paterson, saw major increases in gun violence in 2020, mirroring a nationwide trend. Handgun purchase permit applications spiked dramatically in 2020, at more than 442,000 — a 332 percent increase from 2019.
The three bills that passed the Assembly in 2019 but did not pass the Senate would:
— Require gun owners to renew their firearms purchaser ID cards every four years. They now have no expiration date. Under the bill, A.B. 5030 (20R), first-time applicants would also have to show they’ve completed a course in “the lawful and safe handling and storage of firearms” less than four years prior to filing for the permit.
— Mandate that gun dealers keep detailed electronic logs of ammunition sales and report all firearm and ammunition sales to the state police. The bill, A.B.1292 (20R), would also require ammunition buyers to show photo ID in addition to already required documents.
— Require that guns be kept in lock boxes, or be equipped with trigger locks, when not in use. The bill has not yet been reintroduced this session.
Sweeney’s office did not respond to an email seeking comment. But gun control is one of the signature issues of state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), who is retiring in January.
“I’m in support. I’ve always been a gun safety advocate, and I will continue to be. If I were in New Jersey I’d be there,” said Weinberg, who is with family in California.
Gun control isn’t the only issue causing tension among Democrats. Another package Weinberg has championed, the Reproductive Freedom Act, intended to expand access to abortion and family planning services, has stalled in the Legislature, where Sweeney and others have appeared hesitant to advance it.
But Weinberg, who has managed to be the state’s most powerful progressive lawmaker while maintaining a close alliance with Sweeney, downplayed the divisions. She predicted the Senate would pass “some” of the gun control measures.
“I think Murphy and Sweeney have some differences. I don’t think they spend most of their time figuring out how I’m going to put together a gun safety package because it’s going to make Steve Sweeney mad,” she said.
Murphy signed previous gun control bill packages in 2018 and 2019, including laws to eventually require sales of “smart guns” equipped with technology that allows only their owners to fire them and adding to the crimes that make people ineligible to purchase guns.
Another part of the gun control package would ban sales of .50 caliber firearms. Both houses of the Legislature passed that measure in 2013, but Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it, despite earlier proposing a similar ban himself. Christie vetoed the measure not long after a gun rights group from New Hampshire warned him that his presidential ambitions could suffer if he signed it.
“New Jersey already has strict gun laws. To go even further really puts a stamp on what we believe in this state — what our values are, what we think should happen in New Jersey,” Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said at the event.
Other proposals would raise the age to purchase long guns from 18 to 21, making it the same age for purchasing handguns A.B.1141 (20R), require newly sold handguns to be equipped with “microstamping” technology to make it easier for police to trace ammunition casings S1112, and require gun owners who move to New Jersey to obtain a firearms purchaser ID and register their guns within 30 days.
The package would also appropriate $10 million for community gun violence intervention programs like the Newark Community Street Team and $2 million for the Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers. It would also copy a New York state proposal that would hold gun manufacturers legally liable for harm under the state’s public nuisance laws, and reconvene a “States for Gun Safety” summit with neighboring states that was scheduled for last March but was canceled because of the pandemic.