New Jersey lawmakers, who often lead the nation in passing gun safety laws, have barely moved on eight bills currently before them as New York and even the U.S. Senate reached deals in the wake of recent mass shootings.
Senate President Nicholas Scutari, who became the state Senate’s top legislator in January, is the focus of gun control activists’ attention for holding up a package of bills that Gov. Phil Murphy began pushing for 14 months ago. On Tuesday, New Jersey Moms Demand Action held a rally outside Scutari's legislative office.
“In spite of everything that’s happening in New Jersey, in spite of everything that’s happening nationwide, and no matter where the opposition is coming from, we want to make sure that Senate President Scutari posts the bills [for votes], and we don’t understand why that wouldn’t be possible,” said Raisa Rubin-Stankiewicz, a lead state organizer for March For Our Lives. “It is necessary to take action now. There is no time to waste.”
While the bills have also not come for a vote in the state Assembly, the leader of that chamber, Speaker Craig Coughlin, stood with Murphy in December in support of the bills. His spokeswoman, Cecilia Williams, said in an email that the Assembly is working through the proposals: “The strength of New Jersey’s comprehensive common sense gun safety laws continues to be important to the speaker.”
If we’re not going to be able to do it on the heels of two of the most public gun tragedies in our nation’s history, then I don’t know when we do it.
In the senate, Scutari’s spokesman pointed to a statement last month after the Uvalde school massacre, in which Scutari said he “will keep an open mind” on bills to reduce gun violence. Scutari did not respond to a text message seeking additional comment.
Meanwhile, Scutari’s left flank is restless. Sue Altman, executive director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, said the gun control proposals are “very, very popular among New Jerseyans, so it seems inexplicable to me that [Scutari] can’t leverage his power as senate president to get the votes if he really wanted to.”
“If we’re not going to be able to do it on the heels of two of the most public gun tragedies in our nation’s history, then I don’t know when we do it," Altman said, referring to the shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo. "I think it’s a real problem for Democrats if, when they’re in power, they still can’t get things done.”
The Democrats have majorities in both legislative chambers.
Activists want the bills voted on by June 30th, when a flurry of legislative action typically wraps up before a summer break. The proposed bills further regulate legal gun ownership in a range of ways, including: requiring gun permit applicants complete a firearm safety training course, mandating firearms get stored in locked containers, raising the age required to purchase some guns, and banning .50-caliber weapons.
The most controversial bill mandates gun owners store their weapons in a lockbox or safe. Gun rights groups like the NRA oppose all of the measures, saying they won’t prevent crime and infringe on the right to self-defense.
One proposal, similar to a law signed in New York last year, would allow gun manufacturers to be sued by the state for public harm. Unlike the other proposals, that bill moved Monday when it passed the Senate Judiciary committee, with Democratic support and Republican opposition.
Notably, the second-highest ranking senator after Scutari, Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, spoke at a gun control rally on Saturday. And on Tuesday, she joined the state attorney general for a live demonstration of microstamping technology. One of the bills under consideration would mandate microstamps on cartridge casings on newly manufactured semi-automatic pistols in order to trace bullet casings to the gun that it was fired from.
One explanation for Scutari’s apparent hesitation in acting on the bills is conflicting political priorities, said Matthew Hale, a Seton Hall University political scientist. Murphy previously signed laws reducing the maximum capacity of ammunition magazines and banning ghost guns, and Hale said Murphy hopes to build on his gun safety record “as one of his entryways into national politics.”
But Scutari, Hale said, “doesn’t have the same sense of urgency to act.” Plus, “he has to make sure he has all the votes he needs to pass what would be some of the most aggressive gun control measures in the nation. Every policy ideal must get through the practical and transactional parts of New Jersey politics.”
Indeed Scutari leads a Democratic caucus that shrunk in size due to stinging election defeats last November, including former Senate President Steve Sweeney, who was ousted by a Republican political neophyte. In the lower house, Assemblymember Joann Downey, who had sponsored prior gun safety bills, was also voted out of office in a close race with Republican Kimberly Eulner.
New Jersey has the second strongest gun safety laws in the country, according to the Giffords Law Center, and the third lowest gun death rate. Proponents say that’s no coincidence. But the Star-Ledger reported Tuesday that part of the hesitancy to pass new measures is exactly because New Jersey already has strict laws, and some lawmakers don’t think new regulations will make the state safer.
Eytan Stern Weber of the state’s chapter of Moms Demand Action said “every single one of [the bills] will save lives.”
“We just want to show [Scutari] with no uncertain terms that this is our top priority,” said Stern Weber, who is a gun owner himself. “We call, we write, we post on social media, we get our message out there to say that violence is not a political issue. Everyone wants to be safe.”