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Decoding Chris Christie’s Domestic Violence Gun Bill Veto

The New Jersey governor and Republican presidential candidate says a bipartisan bill tightening gun surrender laws for abusers is redundant. But is it?

On Monday, New Jersey Governor and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie vetoed a bipartisan bill that would have required judges in the state to order domestic abusers to either turn their guns over to law enforcement or sell them within 24 hours of a conviction or receipt of a restraining order, saying it “substantially restates New Jersey’s existing laws that govern firearms and domestic violence.”

But Christie’s claim doesn’t entirely track: New Jersey law currently authorizes judges to order the removal of firearms, firearm purchaser identification cards, and handgun permits from domestic violence offenders. The new law, A4218, would have required that those steps be taken within 24 hours, and ordered abusers to provide proof of compliance to the court within 48 hours — modifications the bill’s lead sponsor, Democrat Gabriela Mosquera, has called “small but powerful.”

Federal law prohibits anyone convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from purchasing or possessing a gun, but does not outline a process for offenders to surrender their firearms. So states have to come up with their own guidelines, and some have been more successful than others. The states with the lowest rates of gun-related intimate partner homicides, New Jersey among them, have stronger laws than the federal standard. But some potentially lethal gaps remain. And the difference between “authorized” and “required” can mean someone’s life.

As The Trace reported last month, in some states where it’s up to judges to order a gun surrender, they rarely do:

An examination of Rhode Island’s relinquishment policy by Everytown for Gun Safety found that judges ordered defendants to surrender their guns in only 5 percent of qualifying domestic violence cases between 2012 and 2014. Even when a judge knew a defendant had access to a firearm or threatened to use a firearm, a gun surrender order was issued in only 13 percent of cases. (Everytown for Gun Safety is a seed donor to The Trace.)

“I think there’s a feeling among people that it’s not fair to keep people’s guns unless they have proven themselves to be a really violent criminal,” says Rachel Orsinger, manager of government relations at the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “They don’t see domestic violence as a real type of violence.”

Domestic Abusers Frequently Get to Keep Their Guns. Here Are the Big Reasons Why.

Monday’s veto is conditional, meaning that Christie — sagging in the 2016 polls and demoted to the undercard at last night’s debate — may yet sign the bill if the legislature agrees to make changes. In his veto message, the governor suggested lawmakers enhance penalties for convicted abusers and fast-track firearms application permits for persons who suffer abuse. This last recommendation, which he referred to as “empowering victims to protect themselves through lawful means,” follows the June death of Carol Bowne, a New Jersey resident who was stabbed to death by an ex-boyfriend while awaiting a handgun permit. Gun rights activists argue that a delayed local vetting process may have cost Bowne her life.

As it stands, New Jersey has some of the nation’s toughest gun laws. Unlike the federal government and many state capitals, it extends protections to dating partners (avoiding the so-called “boyfriend loophole) and requires all (rather than only some) subjects of temporary restraining orders to stay away from guns. Perhaps as a result, 33 percent of its domestic violence murders are committed with a gun — 22 points lower than the national average.

The relinquishment mandate, which was backed by former Congresswoman and gun violence victim Gabrielle Giffords, was passed by the New Jersey legislature this summer, and looked like it might automatically pass into law under state rules as Christie took no action on it into this fall. Instead, his veto for now keeps A4218 from adding a new piece to the state’s gun regulation framework.

[Photo: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]