Last year, 529 people sought permits in New Jersey to carry a gun. Out of those applications, 26 were denied.
Gun advocates, however, say those numbers don’t tell the whole story.
“The system is known to be impossible,” said Evan Nappen, a prominent gun-rights attorney in Eatontown, noting that the state up until now would not issue a so-called “carry permit” unless someone could demonstrate that they have a pressing need to carry firearms in public
“Before people apply, they know damn well that justifiable need is all but impossible,” Nappen complained. “You go to police and say you want to carry, and they will say ‘don’t bother.’”
That all changed two weeks ago after the U.S. Supreme Court greatly expanded individual gun rights, in a landmark ruling that said the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home. The decision invalidated the justifiable need requirements of the gun laws in New York and other states, including New Jersey — home to some of the strictest gun-control measures in the country.
State officials, bracing for what the State Police have predicted could be as many as 200,000 new carry permit applications in the wake of the controversial court decision, said gun owners will still be required to obtain permits, albeit without the requirement showing justifiable need.
In the meantime, though, the court ruling itself and a change in the New Jersey Legislature’s political leadership may do more to add new restrictions on firearms in the state than might have ever been possible a year ago, some say
“No one in New Jersey wants to see a guy with a Glock next to their kids at Six Flags or ShopRite, or waving one around on the Turnpike,” said attorney Bill Castner, an adviser to Gov. Phil Murphy on firearms. “The governor and his team will need to work with legislative leadership to identify innovative and hopefully aggressive ways to respond to this Supreme Court decision. The danger is that we are a densely populated state and more gun access will lead to more gun deaths.”
Already, the Murphy administration — which immediately took steps to incorporate the changes mandated by the Supreme Court decision in the state’s permitting criteria following the ruling — is moving to identify “sensitive places” like schools, hospitals, government buildings, public transit, restaurants and entertainment venues where guns should not be allowed.
Among the other issues on the table, said Castner, is whether the state can allow businesses — by default — to prohibit guns in their establishments unless they choose otherwise. Or if one wants to carry a gun in public, should they be required to buy insurance, like driving a car? he asked. And whether having a gun in a car requires that it be securely stored and unloaded.
“These are some of the critical questions policymakers will need to confront to build safeguards around the issuance of carry permits,” Castner said.
Carry privileges in the state are granted individually by Superior Court judges in each county on case-by-case basis, according to the State Police. New Jersey does not differentiate between “concealed carry” and “open carry.”
Some of the administration’s proposals, while driven by the court decision, also come off Murphy’s successful re-election, coupled with former state Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s remarkable defeat in November. Castner said he believes had Murphy’s Republican opponent won, “the reality is the gun rights community would likely be dominating the agenda here.”
And if Sweeney, a Democrat, was still leading the Senate, he suggested that the Legislature “would almost certainly be a graveyard for stronger gun safety measures as was the case during most of his tenure.”
Earlier this week, the governor signed seven bills into law that further tighten the state’s existing gun regulations and vowed to seek even more measures.
“These are not going to be our last words on gun safety,” the Democratic governor declared. He acted just a day after a 21-year-old man on a rooftop opened fire with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle on an Independence Day parade in suburban Chicago, killing seven people and wounding dozens of others.
Those new laws will mandate people receive firearm training to get a gun permit, ban .50 caliber weapons, make it easier to sue gun manufacturers and dealers over gun crimes in the state, stipulate new residents coming from other states register firearms, require micro-stamping technology, regulate handgun ammunition, and crack down on “ghost guns.”
Nappen is not fearful of an enhanced permitting process, which is said must now be objectively based under the Supreme Court ruling. But he added that the court decision gave a standard for further Constitutional challenge — calling New Jersey’s gun laws particularly susceptible to such a challenge because “they have always been based on the assumption that the Second Amendment is meaningless.”
He believes there will be a huge increase in applications for permits to carry.
“It’s going to explode beyond anyone’s expectations,” Nappen said.
That may be so. Last year, according to State Police data, 55,600 people obtained purchase permits in New Jersey without carry privileges. If even a percentage of those residents with handguns already in the home want to carry a weapon, the permitting numbers could expand exponentially.
That concerns Daniel Semenza, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University-Camden who studies gun violence. Noting the state’s tough gun laws, he said it also has some of the lowest rates of gun violence in the country, citing research that shows the stringency of such laws is connected to homicide and violence rates.
As for New Jersey’s growing list of proposed gun regulations, Semenza, a faculty affiliate of the New Jersey Center on Gun Violence Research at Rutgers University, said he believes peoples’ concerns and fears are well-founded.
“I think New Jersey is doing the right thing of getting ahead and as much as possible on the books to get ahead of what is to come,” he said.
Still, Semenza believes there is no “silver bullet” — his term — to reduce gun violence.
“I am a proponent of the Swiss cheese model of firearms policy,” he said. “There has to be a lot of interlocking policies, some with holes on them like Swiss cheese. But when you layer them, you close the gaps.”
And as for the Second Amendment, Semenza said that “without infringing on the ability of accessing firearms, there’s a lot of things you can do.”