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Corzine's gun law may see changes

Gun-control advocates are praising Gov. Corzine's work to secure the passage of a one-handgun-a-month buying limit, and his reelection team is preparing to use it on the campaign trail.

Gun-control advocates are praising Gov. Corzine's work to secure the passage of a one-handgun-a-month buying limit, and his reelection team is preparing to use it on the campaign trail.

But the law might not be in its final form.

Corzine pushed the bill through the Legislature late last month only after agreeing to create a task-force team whose first job will be considering amendments to ensure that collectors, competitive shooters, and recreational gun users "are not adversely affected."

That could open the door for exceptions.

With the plan stuck one vote short of passage in the Senate, the compromise was needed to win over Sen. Fred Madden (D., Gloucester), who agreed to vote "yes" on the condition that concerns of law-abiding gun users - specifically collectors and competitive shooters - were addressed.

Madden said he would serve on the panel and expected action this fall on any changes needed to "ensure the freedoms" to collect guns or practice with them.

"I'm confident this will be a real task force with real recommendations," Madden said the night of the vote.

He said changes would be made in the "lame-duck" legislative session after November's election, but before the buying limit was likely to take effect.

The law, which would make New Jersey the fourth state in the nation with a one-handgun-per-month limit, would go into effect five months after Corzine signs it, pushing the effective date into late this year or early 2010. That leaves time for revisions.

An initial report from the study team is due by late October. The task force is to include lawmakers, representatives from the Attorney General's Office, state police and county prosecutors, and advocates on both sides of the gun-control issue.

Bryan Miller, executive director of CeaseFire NJ, a gun-control group that pushed hard for the measure, said he welcomed the study, which will later look at the overall effectiveness of the new law.

"We don't want to create any problems for the hunters, for competitive shooters, for legitimate collectors. If we can find a way to make it easier for legitimate competitive shooters, great," Miller said.

Corzine's executive order creating the panel also mentions consideration for "recreational firearms users," without defining who would fall into that potentially broad group. Corzine's chief counsel, William Castner, said the language was "absolutely not" intended to open loopholes in the law. He said the focus was on collectors and competitive shooters, who might need to buy multiple guns in a month for separate events, along with target shooters.

Castner said gun-control advocates, including Miller and Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D., Hudson), who sponsored the law, would likely serve on the task force.

"We're not looking for loopholes that can be exploited by straw buyers and traffickers," Miller said.

The goal of the bill, he said, is to block "straw" buyers with clean records from purchasing large quantities of guns and passing them to criminals.

Miller said he hoped New Jersey's step could spur similar laws in Pennsylvania. An effort to push a one-handgun-per-month through Harrisburg has failed, however, and a similar law in Philadelphia was struck down in court.

"The [National Rifle Association] has been hammering us in Washington, and this particular bill is the most important thing, I believe, done in the country to prevent gun violence in at least a couple of years, probably more," said Miller.

But critics labeled the plan "feel-good" legislation. They said it would have little impact on criminals, instead impinging on the rights of legal gun users who already go through background checks and notify their local police when purchasing handguns.

"Gangs don't go through police background checks," said Sen. Marcia Karrow (R., Hunterdon).

Scott Bach, president of the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs, an NRA affiliate, said the bill was just "symbolic" in a state that already has some of the nation's toughest gun laws.

"The bill targets only law-abiding citizens, does nothing to address illegal gun trafficking, and represents the Legislature's desire to target gun rights instead of criminal behavior," Bach said.

Supporters said the bill would combat criminals who use buyers with clean records to sidestep the background checks. The issue has been a priority for urban leaders in New Jersey and across the nation, including Philadelphia.

The law would limit handgun purchases to one every 30 days, up to 13 a year, because of timing quirks. Rifles and other long guns would not be affected.

Corzine has used his support of the bill to bolster his claim on sharing New Jersey's core "values" while trying to paint his Republican opponent, Christopher J. Christie, as out of step.

"While we believe in the right to bear arms, we do think that buying one gun a month should suffice," Corzine said in his campaign kickoff speech.

Castner, who worked to forge the compromise that got the plan approved, said the bill was one of Corzine's top three issues, particularly because he had not signed much gun-control legislation.

"He wants to draw a stark contrast to his opponent on this issue," Castner said.

Asked specifically about the bill during the Republican primary, Christie said New Jersey already had enough gun laws.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which praised Corzine, ranks New Jersey's gun laws as the second-toughest in the nation, after California's.

Christie campaign spokeswoman Maria Comella wrote in an e-mail, "Legislation designed to achieve headlines instead of substance will not solve our state's crime problem."

The e-mail said Christie would "aggressively" enforce New Jersey gun laws.

No Republican senators voted for the one-handgun-per-month bill, helping to block it late last year when three South Jersey Democrats also opposed the measure.

But Corzine's executive order got one of those Democrats, Madden, a former state police superintendent, to switch his vote.

Castner said the panel Corzine created would likely be named this week. Along with an initial study, to be ready for lawmakers this fall, it has been ordered to produce a full review of the law's effect within 18 months.

Seton Hall University political scientist Joseph Marbach said he doubted the new law would have much impact in a general election likely to be dominated by property taxes and the economy.

"It's really a secondary or maybe even a tertiary issue in the campaign," said Marbach, dean of Seton Hall's College of Arts and Sciences. "I don't think gun control is really going to get a lot of traction."