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One year, eight new gun-control laws in New Jersey

In his first year, Gov. Murphy looked to strengthen the state's gun laws and its reputation as a gun-control leader.

Gov. Murphy speaks in June about the shooting at the Trenton Arts Festival.
Gov. Murphy speaks in June about the shooting at the Trenton Arts Festival.Read moreWILLIAM THOMAS CAIN / File

Under an orange banner on a November day — one day after a dozen people were killed by a shooter in a Southern California bar; two weeks after 11 people were killed by a shooter at a Pittsburgh synagogue — Gov. Murphy made his state's already tough gun laws even stronger, signing into law New Jersey's eighth major gun-control measure of the year.

A few months earlier, concern over 3D-printed guns had gripped gun-control advocates and lawmakers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and across the nation. The new Garden State law bans so-called ghost guns — 3D-printed or homemade guns that aren't traceable.

Legislators called it the strongest such measure in the country, in keeping with New Jersey's reputation for advancing gun-control legislation. Earlier this year, the state became the second to ban the bump stock, a conversion device that allows semiautomatic weapons to fire at speeds close to that of an automatic weapon — one of the few gun restrictions signed by Gov. Chris Christie before his term ended.

In June, Murphy signed six bills that strengthened gun-control laws further, approving several restrictive measures being pushed by advocates nationally. And in October, the Democrat announced another package of bills he asked the legislature to address next year regarding gun trafficking, investing in smart-gun technology, regulating ammunition sales by requiring ID from customers and reports from retailers, and establishing grants for violence-intervention programs.

"When I took office this past January, New Jersey's gun-safety laws were among the strongest in the nation. But there is still significant action needed to address our nation's gun-violence epidemic," Murphy said in a statement to the Inquirer and Daily News. "As we close out 2018 and move into the new year, we will continue to be proactive in our efforts to save lives and prevent needless tragedies."

Gun-rights groups have protested and sued the state.

"Unfortunately, the governor appears to want to make this one of his signature issues," said Scott Bach, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs. "These laws entirely miss the point. There's a lot of wasted legislative activity that's targeted at the wrong people, and we're going to continue to resist. … It's not rocket science to pass laws that target only criminals."

New Jersey's 2018 push represented a definitive statement for Murphy's first year in office; a backlash against  Christie's reluctance to advance gun-control laws; an indictment of Congress for not taking action after the massacres in Las Vegas and Parkland, Fla.; and an attempt to solidify New Jersey's prominence on a national stage.

"We definitely have been told that New Jersey is kind of a model for how strong gun laws work, and other ways aside from legislation that governors and, at some point, Congress and the president can [use to] keep their people safe," said Brett Sabo, the New Jersey chapter lead of grassroots gun-control group Moms Demand Action.

As Congress has maintained its stance to not expand gun-control laws, advocates have suggested that state legislatures could be alternative arenas for progress. After the February killing of 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland resulted in an energy boost for the gun-control movement, a wave of states passed new laws. Even Pennsylvania broke its years-long freeze on restrictive gun bills to pass a domestic violence measure that requires abusers to surrender their guns more rapidly.

Several of the measures approved by the New Jersey legislature are ideas being advocated nationally.

In June, New Jersey outlawed possessing ammunition that can pierce body armor. It also limited magazine capacity to 10 rounds, lowering it from 15, and giving gun owners until Dec. 10 to dispose of higher-capacity magazines. The magazine ban has been challenged in court by gun-rights activists, who are hoping for a decision before next week's deadline.

Two bills are aimed at keeping guns from people deemed by doctors or family members to be threats. Under one, a person's firearms will be temporarily seized when a mental health professional says the person is a threat to others. The second provides for gun-violence restraining orders, which allow family members who are concerned that a relative poses a threat to petition a judge for a temporary seizure of weapons.

A similar bill in Pennsylvania did not make it to a vote this year, but at least 12 other states passed domestic-violence related laws, with five in addition to New Jersey passing a form of restraining or protection order.

New Jersey also mandated background checks for private gun sales by requiring that all sales or transfers be conducted through a licensed retail dealer. The rule exempts transfers between immediate family members, law enforcement officers, or licensed collectors.

Aside from legislation, Murphy, who campaigned on gun control, hired a senior adviser on firearms, worked with other states to create the States for Gun Safety coalition, and ordered regular reports on gun data to help track trafficking. New Jersey approved $2 million in its budget to establish a gun-violence research center, which will operate out of Rutgers University.

"It's terrific to feel like we're partnering with the governor now instead of fighting against him," said Sabo, comparing Murphy and Christie. "We really feel like it's a team, which is really different."

But for gun-rights advocates, the new administration's actions have been disappointing, if not shocking. Bach pointed out that his organization didn't have a seat at the governor's round-table on gun safety in Cherry Hill at the start of his term, though several gun-control groups participated.

"It seems like everything that the governor and … the anti-gun Democrats come up with are targeted at law-abiding citizens' conduct, not at criminal behavior with firearms," Bach said.

As of September, 119 gun-related bills had been passed by state legislatures in 2018, according to an Associated Press analysis.

Of those, 47 were pro-gun rights or neutral. Four states — Idaho, Tennessee, Utah, and Wyoming — expanded stand-your-ground laws. Nine states passed laws allowing people to carry guns in specific places, such as churches and schools, reflecting a national anxiety about how to defend potential targets from mass shootings.

The rest of the bills involved some form of gun control. Vermont joined New Jersey in passing an array of bills, including ones on universal background checks, extreme-risk protection orders, and raising the minimum gun-purchase age to 21. Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, and Rhode Island banned bump stocks as New Jersey did, along with three other states.

Washington state voters also passed the most extensive gun-control package in the state's history in the November election. It was the only gun-control initiative on any state's ballot.

New Jersey may be at the top of that list again in 2019; Murphy's administration hopes the package of ideas he touted in October will be taken up by the legislature.

"We're here to close a dangerous loophole in our gun laws," Murphy said at the Nov. 9 news conference. "Together we will win this battle. It may be one step at a time, one common-sense law at a time, but we will win it."