By Robert V. Tessaro
The New Jersey Assembly voted Thursday to approve a wide-ranging package of 22 bills aimed at curbing gun violence.
Taken together these bills are part of a comprehensive approach for firearm safety, including mandatory background checks on all private firearm sales, removing firearms from the dangerously mentally ill, banning high capacity magazines that hold more than 10 bullets, establishing weapon-free zones near schools, requiring ammunition to be purchased in person and not anonymously online, and requiring firearm safety training for gun owners. None of these bills will prevent law-abiding citizens from owning a firearm, and the Senate should follow suit and set a date for hearings and a vote as soon as possible.
Recently, Senator Loretta Weinberg and Assemblyman Gordon Johnson attended the Fort Lee Town Hall meeting on school safety and discussed some of the gun control bills both they and their colleagues are sponsoring. Johnson spoke about the contentious public hearing on the proposed bills at the Statehouse in Trenton last week. Gun-control opponents claimed that any new laws would be unconstitutional and would only create hardships for law-abiding citizens.
As Johnson, a former Bergen County sheriff, noted these bills are the results of input from leading policy, law enforcement, and public health experts that will close gaping loopholes in the law while protecting our communities and an individual’s 2nd Amendment Right to possess a firearm.
Among the bills approved by the assembly:
Mandatory Reporting of Dangerously Mentally Ill
Passed into federal law in 1993, the Brady Law requires all federal firearms licensed dealers (FFLs) to conduct a background check on gun purchasers. The law mandated the creation of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), a database of prohibited purchasers, including felons, substance abusers, dangerously mentally ill, and domestic abusers maintained by the FBI.
Since its launch in 1999, the NICS system has blocked nearly 2 million prohibited purchasers from buying a gun. At the behest and result of lobbying of the National Rifle Association, individual states are not required to report any records of prohibited purchasers to NICS. States may voluntarily choose to submit these records, which was a requirement under the original Brady Act, but they do not have to.
There are financial incentives for states to comply, as well as public safety benefits, but many states do not report any records to the FBI. At least 23 states have reported fewer than 100 records of dangerously mentally ill individuals. New Jersey already submits records of criminals, domestic abusers and substance abusers to NICS, but this bill passed by the assembly would require the state to report records of individuals found not guilty of a crime by mental defect or involuntarily institutionalized at a mental health facility.
A separate bill would also require seizure of firearms when a mental health professional has determined a patient is a danger to themselves or others. An appeals process is included for an individual to petition to be allowed to purchase firearms in the future.
Closing the Terror Gap
While it may sound ridiculous, if you are on the U.S. Government Terrorist Watch List for being a known or suspected terrorist and do not meet any of the other prohibited categories, you can still purchase a firearm under federal law. You can not get on an airplane, but you can buy unlimited handguns or a .50-caliber sniper rifle and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
According to a 2011 U.S. Government Accountability Office report, individuals on the Terrorist Watch List have attempted to purchase firearms from gun stores 1,228 times since 2010. More than 90% of those sales were allowed to proceed because there were no other disqualifiers. If an individual is on the Terrorist Watch List by error, there is an appeals process that allows them to quickly be removed and allow a firearm transaction to proceed. This bill would close this loophole and prohibit firearm sales to those on the list in New Jersey.
Ban Online Sales of Ammunition/Require ID Checks
Individuals prohibited from owning firearms are also prohibited from owning ammunition. Under current law, however, there is no requirement to run a background check or verify identification to purchase ammunition. The shooter at the movie theatre in Aurora, CO last year purchased thousands of rounds through a web site with no background check or ID verification.
This bill would prevent the unregulated sale of ammunition online or through mail order in New Jersey and require sales to be completed in person at a federal firearm licensee. Purchasers would be required to present a valid form of picture identification. If someone is not supposed to own a gun, they should not be able to buy thousands of bullets anonymously.
Background Checks on All Private Sale
If you are a private citizen who wants to sell his/her personal firearm to a stranger, the transaction must include a background check through an FFL under this bill. There are exemptions for transfers to immediate family members and members of law enforcement, but it should be common sense that a background check for a private sale should meet the same standards as those for a sale through a gun store.
90 Day Grace Period to Dispose of Unlawfully Possessed Firearms
This bill would allow those currently unlawfully in possession of a firearm or assault weapon to either transfer that weapon to a person lawfully allowed to own it, or turn it over to law enforcement without penalty. A separate bill would also offer support for gun buyback programs where citizens can turn over firearms in exchange for a reward or financial incentive, with no questions asked about the legality of the weapons. Recent buyback programs in Trenton and Camden have resulted in thousands of firearms being turned in, and taken off the streets.
Firearms Safety Training Requirement
This bill requires proof of firearm safety training as a condition for issuance of a firearm purchaser ID card. Every year thousands of children are killed by improperly stored or handled firearms. Much like drivers education is required to get a driver’s license, firearms safety will teach prospective gun owners best practices to reduce accidents.
Magazine 10 Round Capacity
Under this bill the maximum magazine capacity for a semi-automatic firearm would be reduced from 15 to 10. Under the Federal Assault Weapon Ban of 1994, magazines were limited to 10 rounds, but the ban was allowed to expire in 2004. Research has shown that the ban on large capacity magazines did have an impact. In Virginia, for example, during the assault weapon ban there was a significant drop in the number of crime guns recovered with high capacity magazines. That figure has doubled since the ban expired. It clearly can make an impact on the number of mass shootings and ability to spray-fire indiscriminately by criminals. Several national hunting and sportsman groups have said in the past: if you cannot hit your target in less than 3 shots, you should not be hunting.
Ban on Armor Piercing and .50 caliber bullets.
Unless you are hunting a deer that is wearing body armor, the only reason you would need this type of ammunition is to kill someone wearing a bullet-proof vest. Law enforcement strongly supports this type of ban.
Establish a School Safety Task Force and Weapon Free Schools
This bill would establish a standing task force that would develop a list of best practices for school districts to follow to protect their students. Individual jurisdictions would also be able to establish weapon-free zones around schools if they choose.
The Center for Disease Control has found that states with stricter gun control laws have fewer deaths than those states that do not. These bills are not a knee jerk reaction to the tragic mass shooting in Newtown, CT. They are common-sense approaches to addressing gun violence in New Jersey, and a model for what other states can do. None of these bills violates the Constitution or will infringe on the 2nd Amendment Rights of any New Jersey resident. Law-abiding citizens can still purchase hunting rifles, handguns, and shotguns for home protection, hunting, or sport. These laws will make it harder for criminals and dangerously mentally to get weapons, and isn’t that what we all want?
Robert V. Tessaro is a Fort Lee High School graduate, formerly of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and now the president and founder of Safe School Technologies.