TRENTON - The push to make New Jersey the fourth state with a one-handgun-per-month buying limit has stalled in the state Senate in the face of opposition from rural Democrats and a wall of Republicans.
Three South Jersey Democrats from rural areas bucked their party to vote against the plan, leaving it one vote shy of reaching Gov. Corzine, who has said he would sign the bill into law.
Twenty Senate Democrats supported the plan, with 21 votes needed for final passage. Every Senate Republican stood against the bill or did not vote.
State Sens. Jennifer Beck (R., Monmouth) and Bill Baroni (R., Mercer), who supported the measure when it passed the Assembly in 2007, said they could not back the bill now because a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling reaffirming a constitutional right to own handguns might render the plan unenforceable.
Democrats control the Senate by 23-17, normally giving them the power to advance bills without GOP support.
But the three Democrats from more rural districts who voted against this plan - Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and Sens. Fred Madden (D., Gloucester) and Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May) - said their constituents' interests differ from those of the big-city Democrats pushing the proposal.
The Feb. 23 vote left gun-control groups vowing to put a spotlight on opponents in both parties.
"There's little doubt that the people who voted 'no' and those who abstained found the blandishments of the gun lobby more persuasive than the safety of the citizens of New Jersey," said Bryan Miller, executive director of CeaseFire NJ. "Our partners and colleagues will have to do a very public campaign and identify who those persuaded by the gun lobby are. . . . They'll find out from their constituents that they're on the wrong side of this issue."
The three Democratic opponents said they were standing up for their constituents against a bill they say would hinder law-abiding gun users, not criminals. "There is a point that enough is enough and you start becoming both effectively redundant and politically redundant," Van Drew said. "This is not going to stop gang violence, guaranteed."
The plan, pushed by urban leaders, is aimed at fighting "straw" buys, in which people with clean records purchase guns legally and pass them to criminals. It has cleared the Assembly.
"The idea that people can walk into a gun store and buy enough for an arsenal doesn't make any sense," Corzine said. "I hope we'll have further discussion and review of it. I think it's an important step forward."
Opponents call the bill "feel-good" legislation that won't accomplish much. They note that New Jersey has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation and that most "straw" purchases are alleged to happen in states with weaker regulations.
"In the Fourth District, I have, by and large, a significant contingent of constituents who are gun enthusiasts, and they participate in the sport of shooting, and they have rights also," Madden said.
He said he received 27 e-mails on the gun bill, and every one supported his stance.
"We have a large population of sportsmen, and I get elected to represent them," Sweeney said.
Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison said the vote was unlikely to hurt people who oppose the bill. Few New Jersey voters, she said, make Election Day decisions based on gun control. The ones who do are the ones who oppose new regulations.
"There is a very vocal and very passionate contingency for whom gun issues are very important and they base their votes exclusively on this issue," Harrison said. "In some legislative districts, they are very politically savvy."
Under the proposed law, buyers would be limited to one handgun purchase every 30 days in New Jersey. Other guns would not be affected.
Opponents argue that New Jersey's gun laws already make it hard to buy firearms, even for law-abiding citizens. Anyone purchasing a handgun must get permission from the local police, alerting authorities to large-volume buys. Because the wait time can be so long, some lawful gun users buy several handguns at once to avoid repeated delays, gun-rights groups argue.
Van Drew received $500 in 2007 from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which touted the failure of the New Jersey one-handgun-per-month bill prominently on its Web site. He raised nearly $263,000 in the general election campaign that year.
The National Rifle Association gave Sweeney $6,000 in 2007 and the National Shooting Sports Foundation gave him $1,500 that same year. He raised nearly $1 million for his general election campaign that year.
Both senators said the donations were a small piece of their fund-raising and did not influence their votes.
"If [critics] are talking that $1,000 or something is going to influence me, they're way out of line," Sweeney said.
In the Senate, urban and suburban Democrats voted for the handgun limits. The vote broke along similar lines in the Assembly in June. At least three Republicans there supported the measure, but there was less riding on their votes because the plan would have passed with or without them.
In 2007, under similar circumstances, Baroni and Beck joined a handful of Republicans to vote for the bill when it easily passed in the Assembly. It did not go through the Senate that year.
Baroni and Beck both said a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down Washington's handgun ban made them question whether the New Jersey proposal would stand up this time around. That landmark case knocked down one of the toughest gun restrictions in the nation and affirmed individuals' rights to own handguns for self-defense.
"I was just not prepared to vote for it with those concerns," said Baroni, who voted "no."
Said Beck, who did not vote, "There's a serious question in light of the Supreme Court decision last year as to whether or not this bill is constitutional."
She added that she had received new information questioning the proposal's effectiveness. "It's mostly a political bill," she said.
A campaign committee for Beck and her Assembly running mate received $500 from the NRA in 2005, according to state records. It was a small piece of her overall fund-raising and came two years before she voted for, and later abstained on, this plan. She said fund-raising does not influence her voting.
State Sen. Phil Haines (R., Burlington) also did not vote. He said he believes in the cause of reducing gun violence, but questions this measure's real impact.
There is much debate on how similar laws have worked elsewhere. South Carolina repealed its law in the face of criticism that it did not work. Virginia, Maryland and California have similar laws.