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Politics

New Jersey Smart Gun Advocates Aren’t Buying Chris Christie’s Reason for Killing a Crucial Fix

The governor's office said he wasn't given enough time to evaluate the bill. Supporters of the measure say that excuse is weak.

It’s been a week since New Jersey Governor Chris Christie pocket vetoed a bill that would have updated a controversial 2002 smart gun law widely seen as a detriment to the technology. Asked why the bill was left to die, Christie’s office noted that the smart gun reform was among 100 bills passed “in such a hasty and scrambled way” at the end of the legislative calendar, and sponsors of last-minute measures shouldn’t be “praying for them to be rubber stamped.” In other words, he wasn’t given enough time to read or evaluate the proposal.

But to legislators and activists deeply involved in the vetoed bill’s development, Christie’s explanation doesn’t bear up to scrutiny. “That’s a really lame excuse,” State Senator Loretta Weinberg, author of both the 2002 law and the more recent reform, tells The Trace. For nearly two years, Weinberg and other backers of the failed smart gun bill have authored op-eds, held press conferences, appeared on national television, and approached the governor’s office to explain the proposal. They say Christie had ample opportunity to engage with their measure, if he wanted to.

Smart guns are firearms equipped with technology — like RFID tags or fingerprint readers — that ensures that only designated users can fire them. Gun violence prevention advocates say such weapons can reduce accidental shootings, and prevent the misuse of stolen guns. New Jersey’s 2002 law required every gun store in the state to switch over to exclusively stocking smart guns once the weapons became commercially available. That mandate immediately backfired: shops in other parts of the country like Maryland and California looking to sell the weapons were subject to protests and death threats by gun rights advocates who feared that the New Jersey mandate would be triggered. Instead of spurring the technology, the law led to a backlash that stopped smart guns from reaching customers.

Weinberg’s proposed tweak would have replaced the standing smart gun law with a looser requirement for gun dealers. Under the new bill, gun stores would be required to simply stock at least one smart gun alongside conventional weapons. She hoped the reform would help gun owners become familiar with smart guns without antagonizing the gun rights community. The bill was introduced in November of last year and passed through the legislature a week before landing on Christie’s desk — an arrival activists say the governor’s office should have expected for months, if not years.

In April 2014, members of Do Not Stand Idly By (DNSIB), a gun violence prevention group led by New Jersey religious leaders and activists, sent a letter to Christie stating the need to reform the state’s counterproductive smart gun law. The next month, the group met with acting Attorney General John Jay Hoffman, a Christie appointee, to again discuss smart guns. They talked about the standing law, but the meeting did not go well. According to Joe Morris, a DNSIB organizer, Hoffman “dismissed” the group’s proposals after they requested that New Jersey police test smart guns. While members of DNSIB felt such a pilot program would demonstrate the technology’s reliability to consumers, Hoffman felt the move would turn state law enforcement into “guinea pigs,” Morris says. In follow-up correspondence, the group tried to focus on reforming the state’s smart gun law, the repeal of which seemed palatable to both gun violence prevention groups and gun rights activists. They received no reply.

Despite the attorney general’s rejection, DNSIB tried to keep the state’s executive branch aware of the issue. The group sent another letter in October 2014 inviting Christie to a forum on smart guns later that month. The governor declined, citing a scheduling conflict. DNSIB responded with another letter, this time reiterating their criticisms of the 2002 mandate. They received no response. With their approaches to the Christie administration not bearing fruit, the group began taking its case to other lawmakers and the public.

Over the next two years, DNSIB’s work began to pay off. Senator Weinberg appeared on Chris Hayes’s MSNBC show in May 2014 to discuss her willingness to amend the law. In January 2015, the New York Times’ star columnist Nicholas Kristof detailed the challenges facing smart gun technology’s ability to gain public approval, including the 2002 New Jersey law and the vehement response it elicited from pro-gun partisans. Other Democratic state legislators soon joined the repeal effort. In May of last year, the Star-Ledger confirmed Weinberg was engaged in the effort to repeal and replace the 2002 law after meeting with Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, another DNSIB leader.

Weinberg was given an even more prominent platform to explain why she wanted to change the standing smart gun law when she appeared in a “60 Minutes” segment last November. She told reporter Lesley Stahl she would try to repeal and replace her 2002 mandate, though she contended it was not that law that stunted smart gun development; rather, “it is the people who threatened folks who actually wanted to sell such a gun” who deserved the blame. Days later, she held a press conference to announce she was introducing the new smart gun bill. Weinberg was accompanied by prominent state Democratic lawmakers Richard Codey and Steven Sweeney, the Senate president whose relationship with Christie was once described as a “bromance.”

Sweeney’s office expressed open frustration with Christie’s office’s claim that the bill got lost in the end-of-the-legislative-calendar shuffle. “He has people on his staff whose job it is to keep track of these kinds of developments,” says spokesman Richard McGrath.

[Photo: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]