New Jerseyans eager to strap a gun on their hip after the Supreme Court’s decision last month to unilaterally loosen gun carry restrictions throughout the nation may want to step back and take a breath.
Because even though the court struck down New York’s restrictive process for obtaining a gun carry permit — and simultaneously eviscerated New Jersey’s similarly rigid standards — a host of questions remain about how to secure a permit, when and where gun owners will be able to carry their weaponry and what sort of trainingpermit holders should seek out.
Then there’s the question of how likely prosecutors are to bring charges against those who use their legally carried weapons — and the potential lawsuits gun owners face even if they’re cleared of criminal wrongdoing.
“It’s very sensitive and not clearly defined,” said Michael Epstein, a civil attorney from Rochelle Park. “I’m not really sure how some of this is going to play out.”
The confusion is part of the fallout from the Supreme Court’s ruling last month, which declared unconstitutional a New York law that let local licensing officials refuse carry permit applications if the applicant couldn’t show a special need for self-protection.
New Jersey employed a similar law demanding that citizens outline a specific, justifiable need for carrying a firearm in public. Although the court’s ruling didn’t specifically address the statute, the precedent torpedoes it nonetheless and plunges the Garden State into uncharted waters.
“The decision in [the New York case] prevents us from continuing to require a demonstration of justifiable need in order to carry a firearm,” acting Attorney General Matthew Platkin wrote in a June 24 directive sent to law enforcement agencies throughout the state. “But it does not prevent us from enforcing the other requirements in our law.”
Before the ruling, authorities granted an average of only about 530 permits to private citizens each year, according to data from the New Jersey State Police.
That’s expected to change drastically. State police Superintendent Col. Patrick Callahan has said he expects upward of 200,000 people to apply for a permit to carry a handgun, which must be filed with either a local police chief or the state police and expires two years from its delivery.
How much firearms training is enough?
But despite the anticipated influx, portions of the application process remain somewhat vague.
State law says applicants must demonstrate a thorough familiarity with the safe handling of handguns by attending a firearms course that’s either equivalent to state-approved police training or run by a recognized, certified firearms instructor.
Applicants can also submit proof they’ve completed a use-of-force test, or they can send their most recent handgun qualification scores, the law said. Both must be administered by a firearms instructor.
But Evan Nappen, an Eatontown attorney who specializes in New Jersey gun law, said the statute isn’t clear on how much proof applicants must provide. Is one of those listed qualifications enough? Or must they send more?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Nappen said. “Nobody has a definitive answer. I suspect we’ll see some type of better, more definitive guidance. But it hasn’t happened yet.”
Platkin, who has been a vocal critic of the Supreme Court’s decision, has said the state may stipulate more stringent instruction for those seeking carry permits. But lawmakers will likely decide the particulars, he said.
“We’re very much considering training requirements,” Platkin said in an interview earlier this month. “We would use the fullest power we have, but the things … we’re talking about, we would need legislation.”
Two weeks ago, Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law a bill mandating that citizens who want either a permit to purchase a handgun or a firearms purchaser identification card must attend a state-approved course on how to handle and store firearms.
But it’s not clear if the Legislature plans to specifically mandate more training for carry permit applicants. A spokesperson for the Democratic majority in the state Senate did not respond to a request for comment.
Murphy has also called on state lawmakers to put a bill on his desk expanding the number and types of places where firearms can’t be carried. The governor cited government buildings, sports stadiums, arenas, bars, restaurants, child care facilities and hospitals as sites that should remain gun-free.
‘Time down at the range is just out the window’
Regardless of what the state does, police, attorneys and firearms experts urged carry permit applicants to seek out reality-based training that accurately reflects the situations they might encounter while carrying a gun in the wild.
That instruction will look much different from weekend shooting sessions at a well-lit, tightly controlled gun range, they said.
In part, the differences stem from the dynamic nature of real-world violence, which often erupts with little warning in whatever setting its combatants occupy. That could be a crowded stadium, a dimly lit stairwell in a city apartment building, a wide-open parking lot or a busy street corner.
Each of these scenarios presents its own set of hazards, concerns and disadvantages that typical range work simply doesn’t address.
Added to that maelstrom is the human body’s instant, sometimes overwhelming reaction to the stress that combat places upon it. Adrenaline pours into the bloodstream, scrambling the senses and wreaking havoc on fine motor movements, such as drawing a pistol from a holster, taking aim and pulling the trigger.
The hands may sweat and shake, and the limbs may feel cold and clumsy as the body draws blood towards its internal organs, author and veteran corrections officer Sgt. Rory Miller wrote in his 2008 book, “Meditations on Violence.”
The eyes sometimes lose their peripheral vision or depth perception, and the ears can suffer from “auditory exclusion,” or temporary hearing loss due to stress. This sweeps away a person’s ability to hear gunfire, sirens or shouting, Miller wrote.
The mind wildly distorts perception and memory, he said. Behavioral looping is common, as the brain tries to process the situation but can’t step on the gas.
This chemical cocktail also has a devastating effect on firearms accuracy, Miller wrote.
According to New York City Police Department statistics from 1994 to 2000, trained police officers hit their target on the street from a range of 0 to 2 yards just 38% of the time. At 3 to 7 yards, they missed 83% of the time, Miller wrote.
Authors Marc MacYoung and Chris Pfouts phrased it succinctly in their 1994 book, “Safe in the City.”
“Unless you are trained to operate under these conditions, you ain’t going to be able to hit [expletive],” they wrote. “All that time down at the range is just out the window during an actual situation.”
The authors said citizens shouldn’t simply buy a gun for self-defense and think that’s all they need. They should seek out training that emulates a high-stress environment.
“If you don’t think you need this, go out and try surviving in a paintball game,” they wrote.
Kelly McCann, a security consultant and owner of the Virginia-based Kembativz Brand, agreed.
Responsible gun carriers should be prepared to spend a considerable amount of time and money on the appropriate instruction, McCann said. He advised gun owners to sign up for a defensive handgun course that will force them to fire under duress.
“The normal person will go get a gun, buy a box of 50 rounds and shoot 25 so he knows what it sounds and feels like, and he’ll load some magazines and just have that gun,” McCann said. “Just because you understand how the gun works and — with no stress at all — you can press the trigger and put bullets in the black part of the target … that doesn’t mean [expletive] in combat.”
Elmwood Park Police Chief Michael Foligno knows how stress can decimate the mind and body. That’s why he set up his own defensive tactics program for local police officers that relies on boxing and grappling instead of the dated, ineffective techniques they learned in the academy.
Residents looking to carry weapons should go through the same kind of stringent training, he said.
“They have to come up with something that helps people train in a stressful situation, so the minute something goes wrong, they’re not firing the whole magazine at a crowd because they panicked,” Foligno said.
Nappen, the gun attorney, said he encourages gun owners to take a trio of courses taught by the National Rifle Association: a basic pistol class and twin courses on personal protection inside and outside the home.
Besides the practical skill of shooting, Nappen said, these classes teach attendees the legal aspects of using deadly force.
“If you take those three courses, it will give a very good basic understanding for anybody looking to do this,” Nappen said.
‘Just the beginning of your real problems’
No matter how much training gun owners endure, they still may find themselves in hot water if they ever use their firearm — especially in public.
“I tell my classes that, ‘Look, the shooting is just the beginning of your real problems,’” McCann said. “You got out of the situation? Hooray. Stand by. Because you’re going to be scrutinized by law enforcement, you’re going to be scrutinized by the victim’s family and you’re going to be open to all kinds of litigation. Your problem didn’t end there, it started there.”
Because facts vary in every case, it’s too simple to say a gun owner who shoots someone in what they believe to be self-defense will face any specific charge, said Laura Sutnick, a criminal defense attorney from Hackensack.
But aggravated assault and possession of a weapon with the intent to use it unlawfully might be leveled at a carry permit holder who, for example, shoots a gun in a crowd, she said. Or when a reasonable person might have retreated or called 911.
“Just because you have a permit to carry a gun doesn’t mean all bets are off,” Sutnick said. “And if you think that when you’re in a dangerous situation, you can fire away and you’ll be fine … maybe you will and maybe you won’t. But it’s going to depend on the facts.”
Defending yourself in court will be expensive. But beyond the money, there’s the psychological toll a criminal trial takes, Sutnick said. The shooter’s life is on hold until the case is decided. And a mandatory state prison sentence could wait in the wings if a jury convicts them.
But the nightmare may continue even if jurors clear them of any wrongdoing, said Epstein, the civil attorney.
A carry permit holder doesn’t have qualified immunity, as a police officer does. So even if they beat the criminal charges, they could be sued by the victim, their family and affected bystanders, among others.
“There are potential risks for liability,” Epstein said. “We’re in fertile ground here. There’s going to be cases for sure.”