Governor Christie announced policy moves last week that are meant to loosen New Jersey’s gun-control laws and allow more people to carry firearms.

Christie once supported the state’s firearms restrictions, which are viewed as some of the toughest in the United States, but began to criticize them last year while he was pursuing the Republican presidential nomination. Christie was attacked as insufficiently conservative on the campaign trail before bowing out of the presidential race in February.

A special study commission Christie appointed last year — one day before he declared his presidential candidacy — found that some towns do not process gun permits within the timeframe required by state law and that New Jersey’s gun regulations should be loosened slightly. The changes Christie announced Friday stem from the report that study group released in December.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature has refused to consider any changes that would water down New Jersey’s gun-control laws, which state and federal courts have upheld repeatedly as reasonable and constitutional public-safety measures.

Christie and the state Attorney General’s Office instead moved to make changes through the state regulatory process and through their power to issue law-enforcement directives that apply to all local police departments.

The governor, in announcing the measures, cited the murder of Carol Bowne, a South Jersey resident who was fatally stabbed in June by her ex-boyfriend in her front yard. Bowne had filed papers for a handgun permit with her local police department, which was required by state law to respond within 30 days, but two months later Bowne was still awaiting a decision at the time she was killed.

“The terrible tragedy involving Berlin resident Carol Bowne last summer was a jarring example of a permitting system that had failed and needed to be reexamined and fixed,” Christie said, adding that his new policies were meant to ensure that “constitutional rights will be protected and respected in New Jersey.”

Gun control advocates were taken aback by the measures.

“Most New Jerseyans had hoped Christie would return to the state to act for the public safety of its residents,” said Bryan Miller, executive director of Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence.

“Sadly, he is still running for president, this time for the 2020 race, and so pandering to the gun extremists in the Republican Party by endangering all Garden State residents by making guns on our streets more likely.”

Three words added

Christie is proposing changes to the wording of a state regulation governing which people may get permits to carry handguns — a minor shift that involves adding just three words but could nonetheless have a far-reaching effect in arming more New Jerseyans.

Under current state law, applicants must prove a “justifiable need” to carry a handgun, a phrase that courts have interpreted to mean an “urgent necessity for self-protection.” Gun-rights supporters have argued for years that the New Jersey standard is nearly impossible to meet, because almost no one lives under constant threat of mortal danger.

Gun-rights groups often file lawsuits in state and federal courts challenging this standard as a violation of the Second Amendment right to bear arms. The courts have upheld New Jersey’s law each time.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that individuals have a right to keep arms in their homes. But the court has not said people have a right to carry firearms outside their homes.

As it is currently written, the New Jersey regulation defines “justifiable need” as “the urgent necessity for self-protection, as evidenced by specific threats or previous attacks which demonstrate a special danger to the applicant’s life that cannot be avoided by means other than by issuance of a permit to carry a handgun.”

The Attorney General’s Office is seeking to add some more flexibility by inserting three words.

If the change is adopted, the rule would define “justifiable need” as “the urgent necessity for self-protection, as evidenced by serious threats, specific threats or previous attacks which demonstrate a special danger to the applicant’s life that cannot be avoided by reasonable means other than by issuance of a permit to carry a handgun.”

The change could have the effect of allowing more New Jerseyans to bear arms, since they would no longer have to show “specific” threats — only “serious” ones.

A Monmouth County man who owns a landscape-supply business once argued in court that he routinely carried large bundles of cash in the evenings and needed a handgun permit because of the dangers inherent in his line of work. The courts rejected his application because he had never been assaulted and could not prove a specific threat. It’s unclear whether that same applicant, or those in similar situations, would now be able to obtain a permit under the looser standard of “serious threats.”

“For example, one such situation could be a taxi driver who works nights in a particular precinct where armed assailants recently and on multiple occasions had flagged down cabs at night and robbed and shot the drivers,” the Attorney General’s Office said in documents filed as part of the process to amend state regulations. “Another example of a serious but not specific threat may be where the applicant is an eyewitness to a murder committed by the member of a street gang that has engaged in systematic and dangerous witness intimidation and retaliation.”

Seeking input

The proposed amendment has not been adopted. Members of the public have until May 6 to provide written feedback to the email address LPPNJSPFIU@gw.njsp.org or by mail to the state police headquarters in West Trenton.

State agencies often hold a public hearing before many regulatory changes are adopted, but in this case the Attorney General’s Office has not scheduled a hearing. A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office did not respond Friday when asked why a hearing had not been scheduled.

Separately, Christie announced that a new database would keep track of how long it takes each town to process permits for firearms purchasing cards and handgun-carrying permits. In a new directive unveiled Friday, the Attorney General’s Office said that all local police departments must approve or deny these applications “as expeditiously as practicable” and before the deadlines set out by New Jersey law.

Even without a handgun-carrying permit, people who live in New Jersey or are passing through may transport unloaded guns in their vehicles. New guidelines from the attorney general, also announced Friday, say those people may stop for gas or food, to use the restroom, pick up or drop off passengers, and to attend to emergencies, among other everyday scenarios, without running afoul of the law. Christie has pardoned several out-of-state visitors and one resident who faced sanctions for carrying firearms in their cars.

© Copyright, 2016, Herald News (West Paterson, NJ)

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