Wrestling with gun culture in New Jersey

Gun Rights

When I was a kid, I got a kick out of picking up a fake rifle tethered to a counter at the Seaside Heights boardwalk and hitting as many targets as possible. Nailing the one over the guy at the piano was the shot because he’d start playing a tune.

That was the extent of my childhood gun experience. Pretty typical here. “The Sopranos” notwithstanding, who associates New Jersey with guns?

Well, around the same time, Mike Wieszczek was experiencing something completely different as a Jersey kid. I recently chatted with this gun owner who has been a sportsman for as long as he can remember, and he shared something that happened when he was 16.

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The Chesterfield resident said his father had bought him a shotgun he kept in a closet. He came home from school one day, settled in the basement to watch television, then heard something upstairs. He knew his parents weren’t home, so he grabbed the gun, loaded it, and went upstairs.

“And it was my grandfather,” he said.

Whoa.

“That kind of tweaked me a little bit,” Wieszczek said. “Holy crap, I could have killed my grandfather. Sixteen years old, I should not have had access to that gun, even though I knew how to use it.”

Having had this formative lesson in respecting the power guns hold and how important it is to wield it responsibly, it’s no surprise Wieszczek is in favor of things like strict background checks.

“There’s no reason I need a gun tomorrow,” he said.

Where he does take some issue with the new gun restrictions Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law on Dec. 22 — now being challenged by two groups of gun rights advocates in federal court — is in understanding the finer points of what might violate them. What’s mostly being challenged in court is the extensive list of locations where guns are prohibited — e.g., schools, courthouses, child care centers, polling places, bars/restaurants where alcohol is served, churches. Plus, carrying guns on private property unless the property owner expressly allows it is a no-no, as is driving with a loaded gun in the car.

Wieszczek wonders, if he’s traveling with his gun and he goes by a school, is he now in violation? According to the law as passed, he clearly is if it’s loaded. But federal Judge Renee Marie Bumb’s initial 60-page ruling in the challenge does reflect his concerns, saying 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 earlier this month issued a temporary order blocking parts of the state’s new gun law.

My inclination? Most gun owners don’t need loaded weapons in their vehicles. Carve out reasonable exceptions where a loaded firearm is necessary for specific individuals in specific situations. A hassle for gun owners, to be sure, but it feels imperative.

Prior to my conversation with Wieszczek, I would have been much more likely to simply nod my head at each aspect of the new gun law. Yes, do whatever you have to, just keep them out of my state. We don’t want to become a gun culture.

Last July, Murphy signed seven new gun laws. They mandate firearm training for people seeking gun permits, ban .50 caliber weapons, require new residents to register their firearms, and more.

The item on that list that really pops for Wieszczek is the ban on .50 caliber weapons. Outlawing sniper rifles? No problem. But a .55 caliber black powder rifle for hunting? Now you’re punishing responsible gun owners like him. And doesn’t that muddy up the seemingly considerable common ground you might otherwise have between pro- and anti-gun folks?

Can a reasonably safe New Jersey and .50 caliber rifles for hunters coexist? I confess to ambivalence here. Hunting is not my thing, for sure, but I’ve never been one to think others shouldn’t practice their sport. This feels like it could be a place to give an inch.

According to Everytown for Gun Safety, there are only three other states in the nation with stronger gun laws than New Jersey. I am proud to live in a state that can say that, and even prouder that we keep making them stronger. We are one of 19 states to have a red flag law.

I am ashamed that our nation suffers from this pervasive cancer. The people who want weapons to defend themselves in case the government comes to their door? Say what, militia man? Not only do I not get that, I don’t want to.

I also can’t abide this American glamorization of weapons, especially among our elected officials. Nor can I sit idle while children go through shooter drills, raising the question of which is worse – that they take it in stride or that they live in fear.

I believe members of the generation growing up with this experience are going to be the (radical?) change we need. Plus, thanks to organizations like Moms Demand Action, supporters of the movement for gun safety (nearly 10 million) now outnumber those for the NRA (nearly five million).

Given these facts, we’re probably a generation away from a drastic societal shift. In the meantime, look! There might be common ground.

Let’s bring on all the sensible people we can get, no?

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