Amid a sharp increase in gun violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy is making it a second-term priority to pass new measures to make New Jersey’s gun laws even stronger.
But the debate in Trenton is whether those proposals would do anything to stem the illegal gun violence plaguing the state’s largest and poorest cities.
The governor failed to secure enough votes among fellow Democrats for his so-called gun safety 3.0 package last year because the outgoing Senate president, Stephen Sweeney, said ”not one of these bills is going to do anything against violent crime.”
Sweeney’s successor, Nicholas Scutari, echoed that concern.
“I will keep an open mind on any actions that will reduce gun violence, but New Jersey already has some of the strongest gun control laws in the country,” Scutari, D-Union, said in a statement. ”I think we should focus on the most effective ways to take illegal guns off the streets and out of circulation. Those are the weapons used in most gun crimes.”
In 2020, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives traced — or tracked the origin of — 3,584 guns in New Jersey, according to a state police memo obtained by the USA TODAY Network New Jersey. Of those, 228 were purchased by the person listed as the gun owner. None was used in a shooting, according to the memo.
“If you want to impact gun crime, you’re not going to do it by targeting law-abiding citizens. The only way you’re going to impact gun crime is to severely punish criminals,” said Scott L. Bach, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs, the state’s NRA affiliate.
“The notion that anything in the governor’s bill package is going to positively impact gun crime is absurd,” he said.
Murphy has made gun safety a priority since taking office in 2018. He’s signed two packages of bills into law, led a data-sharing collaboration between Northeast states, started a gun violence research center at Rutgers University and pursued a novel legal strategy targeting gun manufacturers by investigating potential advertising fraud.
And last month Murphy announced plans to spend $15 million on gunshot detection technology for law enforcement and community violence intervention programs.
“Governor Murphy believes that we cannot ignore the national uptick in gun violence and must continue to take meaningful action to prevent senseless gun violence in New Jersey,” spokeswoman Alyana Alfaro Post said.
She added that Murphy and the Attorney General’s Office are “acutely aware of the issue of illegal firearms trafficking” and have taken steps to address it, such as criminalizing trafficking and strengthening background checks.
Compared with other states, New Jersey is a success story, said Bill Castner, Murphy’s senior adviser on gun violence. It has long been a state with some of the most restrictive gun laws, and, as a result, they have “made us one of the safest gun states — if not the safest — in America,” Murphy said in a recent interview with the Network.
New Jersey had the third-lowest gun death rate in 2019, with 4.1 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other states with strong gun laws, such as California, Massachusetts and New York, also have some of the lowest gun death rates in the country.
Yet gun crime is a consistent problem in New Jersey’s largest and poorest cities, Atlantic City, Camden, Jersey City, Newark and Paterson, statistics from the state police show.
And the violence has gotten worse since 2019.
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Shooting deaths rose 44% between 2019 and 2020, from 158 to 228, according to state police data. Shooting deaths have increased 12% since then, with 244 in 2021, according to the data.
Since Murphy took office in 2018, gun killings have risen 33%, according to the data.
There were 860 shootings in which people were wounded in that year; in 2021, shootings injured 1,169 people, an increase of 36%, according to the data.
The first month of this year has improved, with a 14% drop in gun violence in January compared with the same time last year, according to the state police.
This is a breakdown of what gun measures Murphy has proposed, though changes to the bills are possible:
One of the bills advanced last year would have required newly manufactured guns to be micro-stamped, a technology that etches identifying characters onto the face of a gun’s firing pin when it hits a bullet cartridge.
The bill is expected to be amended to incentivize, rather than require, gun manufacturers to produce firearms that micro-stamp. California passed a law requiring the technology in 2007, but the gun industry got around it by not producing new models there.
Critics like Bach say micro-stamping is an unproven technology that can easily be bypassed by filing down the identifying numbers. A University of California, Davis, study suggested more research into micro-stamping, saying that while it works with some firearms, “it does not perform equally well for every encoding format or in every semiautomatic handgun.”
Beyond that, Bach said adding micro-stamps does not guarantee leads in crime investigations.
“Just because you’ve identified the firearms doesn’t mean you’ve identified the perpetrators,” he said.
The Murphy administration argues that it would be a “huge improvement” to current ballistics investigations because it would allow law enforcement to identify the gun used in a shooting even if it isn’t recovered.
“Giving law enforcement as many tools as possible to investigate gun crimes is vital. We want our police to have as much data as possible when they are investigating gun violence,” Castner said.
Banning .50-caliber firearms
Lawmakers have tried and failed to ban .50-caliber guns many times over the years. And Sweeney himself supported it before he didn’t.
Yet the ban has not made it to Murphy’s desk.
These firearms are large, powerful and expensive. Giffords, the nonprofit gun safety organization, said they were designed for military use and can damage large targets like airplanes and light armored vehicles.
The state does not specifically identify .50-caliber guns in its monthly reports, and documented cases of their being used or discovered are difficult to find.
The weapons are rarely used, though. The Violence Policy Center has compiled about 50 incidents involving a .50-caliber rifle since 1989, a little more than one a year nationwide. One of those incidents was in New Jersey, when police seized an assault rifle that was converted to a .50-caliber rifle, the center said, citing CNN.
The proposed ban in New Jersey, Bach said, is “a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.”
Gun control advocates said it’s worth outlawing the guns anyway, especially in New Jersey, where there are so many targets for such a powerful and accurate gun. Should the bill pass, New Jersey would join California, Connecticut, Maryland and Washington, D.C., in having some sort of ban on the rifles, according to Giffords.
Safe storage and firearms training
Two bills in the package add restrictions to gun ownership. One would require an owner to complete a firearms safety course before buying a gun or obtaining a permit; the other would require owners to secure their firearms in a lockbox or with a trigger lock.
The safety requirement has idled since 2018, and the safe storage bill was introduced after Murphy made his initial push for the package.
These measures place additional burdens on gun owners and defy constitutional rights, Bach said. Gun owners are not opposed to training, he said, but his organization is opposed to the government’s conditioning ownership on it.
Responsible gun owners should safely store their weapons, he said, but trying to legislate “at the lowest common denominator, which is people being irresponsible with firearms,” should not be the government’s role.
Kelsey Rogers, manager of state policy for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the two bills are the most “commonsense” measures in the package.
Although she understands the argument that gun owners should have access to their weapons for self-defense, Rogers said there is safe storage technology, such as lockboxes that can be opened with a code or fingerprint, allowing for quick entry and the “correct balance” between legal rights and public safety.
Requiring training for gun ownership is legally justified, she said, and aligns with other government mandates no one questions, such as having to complete a driving test to get a license.
“The Supreme Court and the courts have consistently upheld the fact that there are reasonable measures we can put into place for folks to own guns,” Rogers said. “There needs to be some form of training and knowledge if you’re going to have a gun in the home.”
At least six other states, including Massachusetts, have similar storage requirements, according to the Guns and America Project. Data on their effect on gun violence is limited, though.
In Massachusetts, the firearm suicide rate in 2018 was 1.86 deaths for every 100,000 people — less than a third of the national average of 7.04 deaths for every 100,000 people, according to the group, citing data from the CDC.
Electronic ammunition record-keeping
Despite New Jersey’s strong gun laws, its systems for logging and tracking ammunition sales is “antiquated and ineffective,” according to a 2016 State Commission of Investigation report. Current law only requires sales to be handwritten by sellers into logbooks, the report said.
The commission suggested requiring electronic record-keeping in a centralized database that would give law enforcement universal access, similar to the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program. This would allow police to determine links between criminal activity and recent ammunition purchases, and it could be used to flag “excessive” buys, the commission said.
“It helps to give law enforcement another tool to stop tragedies before they happen,” Rogers said.
The SCI said the ammunition database proved effective in Sacramento, California. Between 2008 and 2010, Sacramento police made more than 300 arrests and seized more than 200 illegal firearms based on leads from sales against the state’s database of convicted felons, the commission said.
The bill to require electronic ammunition records was introduced after the SCI report but never made it to Murphy’s desk.
Closing registration loophole
This bill would require every owner who moves to New Jersey to get a Firearms Purchaser Identification card and register his or her guns in the state. Current law does not require the ID card.
The attorney general would be allowed to sue “gun industry members” when there are ”injuries to public health and safety resulting from gun violence” under an Assembly bill advanced last year. There was no Senate version.
The bill says the gun industry could be held liable for creating a “public nuisance,” defined as injuring someone or endangering “the health, safety, peace, comfort, or convenience of others.”
If it becomes law, New Jersey would become an outlier on this front. Thirty-five states have laws granting the industry blanket immunity against lawsuits, according to Giffords.
Dustin Racioppi is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to his work covering New Jersey’s governor and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.