Murphy's Gun Control Package Meeting Resistance In Senate

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

After New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy squeaked out a closer-than-expected win on Election Day last month, he didn’t waste much time before declaring that passing a sweeping set of gun control proposals aimed squarely at legal gun owners was his first priority. Using the recent school shooting in Oxford, Michigan as his call to disarm, the governor said that his focus in the lame duck session of the legislature would be to pass his ban on .50 caliber firearms, mandatory training before being “permitted” to possess a firearm, storage mandates, and other restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms.

Now, New Jersey’s legislature is solidly Democratic, though it will be slightly less so come January, when the next session begins. Republicans picked up six seats in the Assembly and one in the Senate (knocking off incumbent State Senate President Steve Sweeney, no less), but they’re still nowhere close to a legislative majority. You’d think that Murphy’s insistence on passing his gun control wishlist would be eagerly agreed to by his fellow Democrats, and in the Assembly that’s pretty much been the case.

The state Senate, on the other hand, appears to actually be listening to the concerns of gun owners. The Association of New Jersey Rifle & Pistol Clubs sent out this alert to members on Thursday.

In response to a sustained outcry from gun owners, the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee today dropped the so-called “safe storage” bill from its agenda, signaling that support for that horrific bill is waning among legislators. The bill (S3757) blocked self-defense inside the home and blatantly violated the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Heller case, which both affirmed and protected that fundamental right.

Just one bill from the Assembly’s package of multiple Second Amendment attacks emerged from Senate committee after being heavily amended — S372 (gun registration for incoming residents). The amendments drop the requirement that long guns be registered when moving into New Jersey, but retain the requirement to register handguns and obtain a firearms purchaser ID card differently from the rules that apply to existing residents. NRA and ANJRPC testified against the bill, and republican senators Tony Bucco, Jr. (R25) and Declan O’Scanlon (R13) asked penetrating questions and voted no.

While anything can happen in the remaining lame duck session, it appears for the moment that gun owner concerns are being heard in one house of the legislature. The other house, the Assembly, remains poised to vote on the full package of anti-gun bills as early as next week.

Am I pleased that the gun registration requirement for new residents made it out of committee? Of course not. If it becomes law I hope it’s challenged, and frankly, I’d discourage anyone from moving to New Jersey in the first place, because that’s not the worst infringement on your Second Amendment rights you’re going to have to deal with.

Still, it’s undeniably good news that the Senate committee hearing these gun control bills is appears ready to take a pass on most of Murphy’s anti-gun agenda instead of actually passing it. But why is a Democratic-controlled committee apparently reluctant to sign off on some of these gun control bills?

As much as I’d like to think that the Democrats on the committee have suddenly had a sea change in their Second Amendment thinking, I’m too much of a realist to put much credence in that idea. But I do think that the election results in New Jersey were a shock to the Democratic establishment, which had become as complacent as you’d expect the dominant party to be in a deep blue state. The thing is, though, that New Jersey wasn’t dark blue on Election Night. In fact, it was pretty purple. Yes, Democrats maintained a sizable majority in the legislature, but a big reason for that is the legislative districting. Statewide, Democrats only beat Republicans by 3 points; not only in Murphy’s gubernatorial win but in the total number of votes cast in Assembly and Senate races as well.

That’s shocking, and while it certainly hasn’t caused Murphy to moderate his views (and why would he, if he wants to run for president in 2024) it should give Democratic legislators cause for thought. Both the Democratic chair and vice-chair of the committee won their re-election handily; in fact the vice chair, Sen. Joseph Cryan, didn’t even have a Republican challenger. But committee chairwoman Sen. Linda Greenstein is also the Assistant Majority Leader in the Senate, and is poised to move further up the leadership ladder when current Senate President Steve Sweeney leaves office at the end of the year. If New Jersey gun owners are flooding legislative offices with calls and emails urging their Senators and Assembly representatives to vote against these bills, then state Senators who are suddenly much more worried about their next re-election campaign could very well be asking Greenstein to not go full-Murphy and rubber stamp his entire anti-gun agenda.

Sweeney himself might also have something to do with the apparent distaste for the governor’s gun control wishlist among Senate Democrats. Sweeney’s had a frosty relationship with Murphy at times, specifically when it comes to gun legislation. Back in 2019, Murphy called Sweeney out directly for not advancing his pet bills.

Gov. Phil Murphy went to Westfield today to call on Senate President Steve Sweeney to pass a package of bills to strengthen New Jersey’s already tough gun control laws.

Last Thursday, Westfield police arrested a man outside an elementary school with a .45-caliber handgun loaded with hollow point bullets, two loaded magazines, and 130 rounds of ammunition in his car.

Murphy praised Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin for his willingness to post gun bills for a vote, but criticized Sweeney for not backing the entire package, including a proposal for ammunition regulation.

“A handgun without ammunition is a paperweight,” Murphy said.

Sweeney is moving forward with just eight of the thirteen gun safety bills.

“I urge the Senate President to advance the Legislature’s gun safety package in its entirety,” Murphy said. “The time for a bold and comprehensive strategy is now, and I urge our legislative leaders to work together to significantly reduce gun violence in our communities.”

While Murphy didn’t hesitate to bash Sweeney, he stopped short of mentioning Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, a Westfield resident with a 100% rating from the National Rifle Association in a tight race for re-election.

This might be Steve Sweeney’s final “let’s go, Murphy” on his way out the door, though as a lame duck he’s not supposed to have any real power to wield.

I suspect that there are a variety of reasons why the governor’s anti-gun agenda is struggling in the state Senate right now, but the engagement of gun owners is undoubtably playing a big role. As Scott Bach of the ANJRPC says, anything can happen in the lame duck, so New Jersey gun owners aren’t can’t let up. It looks likely that at least one bad bill may end up getting to Murphy’s desk, and you know the gun control lobby is leaning hard on Democrats in the Senate to get on board with the governor’s entire package. Keep up the calls and emails, be civil and steadfast, and there’s a real chance of New Jersey gun owners getting out of the lame duck with “only” one or two new infringements to challenge in court.