New Jersey's strict limits on carrying handguns in public could be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, putting Governor Christie on a collision course with members of his own party who see overturning the state's law as a prime opportunity to expand what the constitutional right to "bear" arms means.
Christie's administration is preparing a petition asking the court not to take an appeal of a lower court ruling that upheld New Jersey's law. That puts him at odds with those asking the court to overturn the law, including the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association, a group of Republican members of Congress and attorneys general from states with more lenient laws.
Even before the bridge scandal weakened his poll numbers, Christie's positions on gun control made him an unacceptable presidential candidate to those Republicans nationwide who base their votes primarily on Second Amendment issues.
Christie called New Jersey's laws "sensible" last year even though gun-rights advocates consider many of them unconstitutional.
Christie did upset advocates for tougher laws last year when, facing pressure from a gun-rights group in the early primary state of New Hampshire, he vetoed a ban on a type of large ammunition he previously said should be banned.
But Christie has also defended the state's tight restrictions on permits to carry handguns outside the home, which require applicants to show a "justifiable need." That term has been defined by courts as having to show an imminent threat to the applicant's life, and a study cited in court papers said just 1,195 of the state's 6.7 million adults got a permit in 2011.
The Supreme Court already expanded gun rights in 2008 by interpreting the Second Amendment as granting an individual the right to own a gun for self defense in the home. The New Jersey case, known as Drake v. Jerejian, could expand that right to include defense outside the home.
More than three dozen congressmen, including Rep. Leonard Lance of Hunterdon -- who has been endorsed several times by Christie -- filed a petition this month asking the high court to take the case.
So did attorneys general from 19 states, including Florida and Georgia, where Christie has been or will be campaigning and raising money this year as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
Christie has said he supports laws that are effective, and is not predisposed to support or oppose gun laws. But the Supreme Court case would highlight his administration's defense of laws that are among the most restrictive in the country.
An issue in the GOP
Recent Republican presidential candidates all were more open to relaxing gun laws than Christie is. A national Quinnipiac University poll in September found that while the public overall is evenly divided between those who favor and those who oppose stricter gun laws, Republicans generally oppose stricter laws, 65 percent to 34 percent.
Gun-rights advocates are considered an especially powerful group in states that go first in the presidential nominating process. Iowa, which holds the first caucus, changed its laws in 2010 to restrict reasons sheriffs can deny permits. In New Hampshire, a WMUR- Granite State poll taken shortly after the 2012 shootings in Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School found that a ban on large- capacity ammunition clips was opposed by 60 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of Tea Party supporters.
Challenging the state's law are several men who were denied New Jersey permits to carry handguns in public, along with the New Jersey Association of Rifle and Pistol Clubs, which is the state affiliate of the NRA.
Arguments that the handgun permit law violates the Second Amendment were rejected in federal district court and by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, with the New Jersey Attorney General's Office successfully defending the law each time.
The state's brief opposing petitions asking the court to take the case is due March 14.
If the court does take the case, Christie would have to decide how to respond to questions about it as entrenched advocates on both sides of the issue try to make their arguments in the media. If Christie were to speak out to defend New Jersey's laws, he'd rile pro-gun voters. Or he could take a lower profile, and add to the concerns of gun-control groups worried he would cave to the gun lobby on the national stage.
"We in the Second Amendment movement in New Jersey will definitely make that a factor in the upcoming election unless the governor changes his behavior," Frank Fiamingo, president of the New Jersey Second Amendment Society, said, referring to the 2016 presidential election. "We're coordinating our efforts with other rights-oriented groups across the nation."
When contacted for this story, Christie's office would not comment directly on the arguments before the Supreme Court, but did release comments he made earlier defending the state's right to make its own gun laws.
At a news conference last year, Christie was asked whether he wanted Congress to pass stricter laws, and he said he did not because Congress could pass laws that would nullify state restrictions, including New Jersey's limits on carrying handguns.
"I didn't also like federal legislation that said if you had a right to conceal and carry in another state you can come and conceal and carry in New Jersey," Christie said at that April news conference, referring to a bill that passed the House but was defeated in the Senate in 2009. "It would undercut everything that has been done in New Jersey historically on that issue."
Challenging the law
The challengers to the handgun law include John Drake of Sussex County, who carries large amounts of cash for his job servicing automated teller machines. Also suing is Finley Fenton, a New York resident who serves as a volunteer reserve sheriff's officer in Essex County and was turned down for a permit by Judge Edward Jerejian in Bergen County.
Whether the Supreme Court will actually consider the New Jersey challenge is not clear.
The ruling in July by the 3rd Circuit upholding New Jersey's law said the Second Amendment does not grant a right to carry a weapon outside the home. But other circuits around the country have ruled the other way, or put tougher hurdles that Legislatures would have to clear to impose restrictions.
Often, but not always, the Supreme Court takes cases when lower courts disagree.
"They don't resolve all the circuit conflicts. Sometimes they let them sit," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond and expert on the judiciary. "It may be sufficiently important that the Supreme Court would look at it, but you just never know."