Federal judge blocks enforcement of many parts of NJ's new carry restrictions

Federal judge blocks enforcement of many parts of NJ's new carry restrictions
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

It’s far from the last decision in the case, but Second Amendment advocates and gun owners in New Jersey won a big victory on Monday as a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order blocking several aspects of New Jersey’s latest restrictions on the right to carry from being enforced for the time being.

The lawsuit, which was brought a coalition of Second Amendment groups including the Second Amendment Foundation, Firearms Policy Coalition, Coalition of New Jersey Firearm Owners, and New Jersey Second Amendment Society, doesn’t challenge every part of the new laws. Instead, it takes aim specifically at the number of newly designated “sensitive places” enacted by Gov. Phil Murphy and the legislature in late December, and U.S. District Judge Renée Marie Bumb believes that many of these “gun-free zones” aren’t likely to pass constitutional muster. From today’s opinion:

As Plaintiffs lament, the challenged provisions force a person permitted to carry a firearm in New Jersey to “navigate a ‘veritable minefield.’” [Pls’. Br. at 12.] Their view is a legitimate one. The Court knows of no constitutional right that requires this much guesswork by individuals wanting to exercise such right.

With such sweeping legislation that includes catch-alls, Plaintiffs cannot decipher what constitutes a “sensitive place,” and so they have abandoned their constitutional right to bear arms out of fear of criminal penalty. Relatedly, Plaintiffs argue that these provisions sweep so broadly that the legislation “effectively shuts off most public areas from carrying for self-defense.” [Pls.’ Br. at 30.] In the final analysis, at some point on the line, when a constitutional right becomes so burdensome or unwieldy to exercise, it is, in effect, no longer a constitutional right. Plaintiffs have made a convincing case that this legislation has reached that point.

Bumb enjoined enforcement of the ban on concealed carry in libraries and museums, bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, and entertainment facilities, as well as the de-facto designation of all private property as “gun-free zones” and the portion of the new law requiring concealed carry holders to unholster and unload their firearm and keep it stored in a “secure container” while they’re in a vehicle. In her opinion, Bumb pointed out that the historical record as established has led other courts to conclude that banning concealed carry in public transportation is a no-no, and the evidence for government barring the lawful bearing of arms in private transportation is in essence non-existent.

In Antonyuk, the reviewing court considered a statute that banned firearms on public transportation in New York, which certainly is distinct from the legislation at issue here pertaining to private vehicle travel. However, even in consideration of public transportation, the reviewing court found that the historical analogues before it actually proved that firearms were generally permitted and temporarily enjoined such provision. 2022 WL 5239895, at *17 (explaining that “historical analogues exist containing specific exceptions permitting the carrying firearms while traveling (presumably because of danger often inherent during travel)”) (citations omitted).

Here, the Court finds that the State has not been able to demonstrate that the current restriction prohibiting functional firearms while traveling in a vehicle in New Jersey is consistent with the Nation’s tradition of firearm regulation.

Bumb ended up granting a TRO against every aspect of the New Jersey law challenged by the 2A groups and individual gun owners (all of whom, incidentally, currently possess a carry license). How long the TRO will last is another question, with the AG’s office expected to appeal Bumb’s decision to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in an attempt to keep the new restrictions in place while the lawsuit proceeds. That particular appellate court has never been particularly amenable to the right to keep and bear arms, but as Bumb pointed out in her decision, the state of New Jersey has offered very little actual evidence that their latest anti-gun scheme comports with either the text or tradition of the right to keep and bear arms, so maybe this will be the case that provides the Third Circuit to start treating the Second Amendment as a first-class right.

For now gun owners (particularly those in New Jersey) have reason to celebrate. Second Amendment Foundation founder and executive vice president Alan Gottlieb and executive director Adam Kraut hailed Bumb’s ruling shortly after it was released, with Gottlieb declaring, “clearly New Jersey lawmakers have gone too far in crafting a new law to get around the high court’s decision” in Bruen. We’ve been saying that all along, of course, but it’s great to see a federal judge take our Second Amendment rights seriously and agree.