Gun violence is plaguing the Garden State. State police data shows that the first five months of 2021 saw a 45% increase in shooting victims compared to the same period in 2018. Last year, the capital city, Trenton, reported a record-setting 40 homicides. A mass shooting in a rural part of South Jersey last month left three people dead and 11 injured, but no arrests on murder charges.
So what are New Jersey lawmakers doing about gun control? Just about nothing at all.
In April, Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, made a public push for eight gun control measures. But the Democratic-controlled legislature didn’t do anything in response. Two bills in his package—a requirement for firearm safety training to get a gun permit and a mandate to store firearms in locked containers— passed the state Assembly two years ago but haven’t gotten out of a state Senate committee. Senate President Stephen Sweeney, whose power base is in more pro-gun South Jersey, declined comment through a spokesman after being asked about the reason the bills are held up.
Five gun control bills haven’t moved out of committee in either legislative chamber: Increasing the eligibility age to 21 for some firearms purchases, requiring a “license plate” microstamp on cartridge casings, reporting ammunition sales to the state police, mandating the registration of firearms purchased out of state, and banning .50 caliber firearms. Democratic legislators also ignored a Murphy proposal, modeled on a bill in New York, to hold gun manufacturers liable for public harm.
In the Assembly, a Democratic spokeswoman said Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin “continues to thoroughly and deliberatively review the legislation to ensure New Jersey continues its path forward as a leader on common sense gun safety that is both robust and fair.”
A spokeswoman for Murphy said he “looks forward to action on these bills soon to further protect our communities from senseless gun violence.” Murphy previously signed several gun violence prevention bills into law, including on background checks, reducing the maximum capacity of magazines, and banning so-called ghost guns, which can be created using 3D printers.
Despite the lack of recent current action on gun control, New Jersey already has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country—and as a result, gun control advocates say, one of the lowest gun violence death rates in the country.
But there is doubt even among gun control advocates that Murphy’s proposed legislation would do anything to stem the violence, considering that the bills largely seek to further regulate legal gun ownership when the bloodshed largely comes from illegal guns brought in from out of state.
Thurman Barnes, assistant director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers University, said there is little the state can do about illicit guns crossing into New Jersey. “We can’t put state troopers and police at the borders to check everybody coming in, nor would we want to do that,” he said.
Instead, he argued that social determinants—education, unemployment, concentrated poverty—are the tougher and more expensive problems that could end the cycle of violence. He also endorsed Murphy’s inclusion of $10 million in the new state budget for “community-based violence intervention” programs. “These intervention organizations in the community, they’re going to save lives,” Barnes said.
Violence intervention is the work that Pamela Johnson of Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition Movement does: Street outreach to prevent shootings before they kid, relocating kids caught up in a cycle of violence, and intervening when there’s a threat on someone’s life. “We have a team who focuses on social media beefs, who focuses on being in those neighborhoods where violence is concentrated,” she said. “When we hear about what’s happening we provide mediation, conflict resolution, and all those things around prevention.”
Meanwhile, mayors from several New Jersey cities—including Newark, Trenton, and Paterson, which have some of the highest shooting rates—have a different idea for their fellow Democrats in the legislature: Roll back the state’s historic bail reform law, which allows almost everyone charged with a crime to be released pending trial without bail, so those facing gun charges are held in jail.
Mayor Reed Gusciora of Trenton, which saw a record 40 homicides last year, said those who have gun charges should remain locked up so they don’t return to the streets to commit violence. He dismissed the current legislative efforts because they just address legal guns. “I don’t think anyone from the neighborhood gangs are going to buy a stored container, or a safety lock,” he said.
But Alexander Shalom of the ACLU’s New Jersey office, which advocated for the bail reform law, said there just aren’t statistics to back up this idea that those released from jail are responsible for this rise in shootings. “Do we have reason to believe that that group of people are committing offenses at a higher rate? If that’s true, we should be data driven. We should be making that decision based on what the data show, not rhetoric and fear,” he said.
Shalom noted that bail reform went into effect nearly five years ago, but gun violence rates only spiked recently. Besides, he noted, prosecutors are still able to request that judges hold defendants in jail if they’re determined to be public safety threats.
Meanwhile, there’s a sense that people are taking matters into their own hands to keep themselves safe. Handgun permit applications skyrocketed 332% in 2020. The political and media focus on gun violence is likely a contributing factor, since rates are up dramatically nationwide. In New York City, the 700 shooting victims so far this year is the highest rate since 2002, and former police officer Eric Adams is leading the Democratic primary for mayor preaching a tough-on-crime mantra. President Biden on Wednesday also unveiled a multi-faceted plan to address gun violence.
In New Jersey, Murphy’s challenger in the November election, Jack Ciattarelli, is also seeking to make crime a campaign issue. In a statement this week he blamed Murphy for having “undermined” law enforcement.
But Democrats in the Senate and Assembly—who are also up for reelection in November—are steering clear from gun control, legislatively and politically.