New Jersey’s stringent gun laws are attracting national scrutiny in the wake of the murder of Carol Bowne, a Camden County woman stabbed by her stalker ex-boyfriend on June 3 while waiting for her gun license to be approved. And Gov. Chris Christie has placed the blame squarely on the state Democrats who, he says, are keeping those laws in place.
“They have a very, very different view of the Second Amendment than I do,” Christie said during a visit to New Hampshire, lamenting that his home state “is not yet a dictatorship” that would give him the power to wipe the slate of gun laws clean.
As he tours early presidential primary states, Christie has been shoring up his Second Amendment bona fides, assuring voters in places like South Carolina that he and his fellow New Jersey Republicans have always been on the right side of the gun-rights issue — and that the state’s strict gun regulations are solely the doing of their rivals across the aisle.
But Christie has found himself on both sides of the gun issue throughout his political career. In 2013, Christie himself called for a ban on the .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifle, though he ultimately vetoed a law doing just that when it passed the Legislature. This past December, his own state police proposed tighter restrictions on gun dealers’ inventory-keeping practices, though they said the governor’s office had nothing to do with the change.
Even when running for governor the first time, Christie told Sean Hannity on Fox News that New Jersey had found a range of consensus on gun policy, telling the conservative host that “we have an illegal-gun problem in New Jersey” and that he “wanted to make sure we don’t have an abundance of guns out there,” before quickly trying to change the subject to taxes and the state’s post-financial-crisis economy.
In a way, Christie’s attempt to dance between positions is illustrative of gun politics in the Garden State.
As both parties have been burned by respectively embracing or attacking gun safety, New Jersey has, in fact, developed a consensus on gun laws. But the more appropriate term might be armistice: The issue has been largely “dormant,” John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, tells The Trace, ever since an extremely contentious battle over assault weapons in the early ’90s proved that guns weren’t a winning issue for either side.
When elected in 1989, Democratic Gov. Jim Florio came into office determined to ban military-style assault firearms, which he did, signing the first law of its kind in the country. But halfway through his term, his party lost its solid legislative majority. State Republicans, heavily backed by the NRA in a then-unprecedented display of political power, mustered the votes to pass a repeal — which was vetoed. This led to a large demonstration on the Statehouse steps, which did more to damage the cause of repeal in the public eye than to help it. “’Scary’ was the word I’ve heard from people who were there,” says Weingart when describing the tenor of the march.
In the aftermath of the ill-fated demonstration, Republicans backed away from the repeal effort. Most notably, Donald DiFrancesco, the leader of the GOP-majority Senate at that time, reversed his position, voting against repealing the ban and even making a show of defying the NRA. The attempt to repeal the ban died in the Senate days later.
Though the NRA was credited with a large role in unseating Florio in the fall of 1993, Weingart said that for the most part, “both parties have been reluctant to engage gun control.” Democrats don’t want to provoke the NRA and other right-wing gun activists, while Republicans don’t want to alienate voters in a largely suburban and urban state. (Christie himself was clearly wary of this: In an early failed bid for the State Senate, he railed against more-conservative GOP-primary opponents who wanted to overturn the assault-weapons ban. “No one needs a semiautomatic assault weapon,” he said at the time. Two years later, when he made another ill-fated run, this time for the Assembly, he made maintaining the assault weapons ban a signature issue.)
This political strategy of stepping back from the fringes of the gun debate can also be seen in the tenure of Christine Todd Whitman, Florio’s Republican successor. As a first-time gubernatorial candidate, Whitman courted gun-rights voters, but once she made it to the governor’s mansion, she softened her views. That first gubernatorial campaign was “really the only time as an issue that it came up for me,” Whitman tells The Trace, adding that she received an NRA endorsement only “because they hated Florio so much.”
After Whitman was elected, a middle ground on gun policy was not difficult for her to stake out. She noted that while she “grew up with guns,” she “believed in gun control.” She announced a plan for gun-free schools — not controversial at the time, but out of step with the current vanguard of gun activism — and even opposed a proposal from her own party to introduce carry permits to the state. Soon after leaving office in 2001, she told the Washington Post that New Jersey is “not a state that is thrilled with the idea of a carry bill.” (Whitman, by the way, takes issue with Christie laying the blame for tight gun laws on his partisan rivals. The Garden State’s strict gun laws are “what you get with the electorate of New Jersey,” the former governor says today. “But when you’re running for president … “)
Democrats swung back into power in the fall of 2001. Soon afterward, the Legislature passed a law mandating that as soon as so-called smart guns — which use technology to limit who can fire them — became commercially available, they would be the only firearms allowed for sale in New Jersey. The law has since become maligned as an example of Democratic blundering on gun regulation (at that same New Hampshire event, Christie assailed it as “another one of those pie-in-the-sky Democrat ideas”), but in fact it had rapidly passed the Assembly with an equal number of Republican yes and no votes and the plurality of party members in the lower house choosing to abstain. The bill landed on the desk of Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey with the support of the vast majority of Republican state senators.