Charles WatsonFeb 28, 2018, 7:30 pmMar 1, 2018, 5:35 pm

New Jersey lawmakers advance measures to tighten gun laws

An emotional hearing covered the details of the bills but also larger questions about interpreting the Second Amendment


TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey lawmakers on Wednesday advanced a half-dozen gun bills to tighten the state's already-strict firearms laws during an hourslong hearing touched off by a deadly mass shooting at a Florida high school this month.

The Democrat-led Assembly Judiciary Committee weighed the six proposals — all introduced before the Feb. 14 massacre in Parkland, Florida — during more nearly five hours in a packed legislative hearing room.

It was New Jersey's first legislative hearing on gun control since the school shooting that left 17 people dead and comes as other states also consider gun-related legislation.

Democratic Assemblywoman Annette Quijano cited the Florida shooting as the context for the hearing but stopped short of saying the New Jersey legislation would have prevented the fatalities.

"This is not a reaction to the recent murders," she said. "It's a reaction to the murders that could have been avoided and those that still can."

The emotional hearing covered the details of the bills but also larger questions about interpreting the Second Amendment. It featured moms wearing red T-shirts and church members who favor stricter gun laws as well as self-identified National Rifle Association members and a former Indy Car racer who worry their rights are being eroded.

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy wasn't at the hearing, but said he backs the legislation "conceptually" and that it's headed in a direction he wants to go. He has long called for tighter gun laws.

The measures include bills to require the seizure of firearms when a mental health professional determines someone poses a threat. Another bill would require background checks for private gun sales. One measure lowers the maximum magazine capacity from 15 rounds to 10, with an exception for a popular .22-caliber rifle. Another bill would require residents to show a "justifiable need" to get a carry permit. The sixth measure prohibits body-armor-penetrating ammunition.

Gun rights advocates who testified against the legislation worried that the bills would further burden law-abiding citizens but leave law-breakers free to commit crimes.

"Explain how criminals will follow these new laws," said David Padua, of Woodbury, New Jersey.

PJ Chesson, a former Indy Car racer from Far Hills, told legislators he wants to keep his right to body-armor-piercing bullets and higher rounds.

"I do fear in the next 50 to 100 years a tyrannical government," Chesson said.

Darin Goens, an NRA liaison for New Jersey, criticized lawmakers for failing to consider what he called school safety legislation, including measures to add guards.

He said the legislation seemed like "piling on" against gun advocates.

"There's a lot of mistrust on our side," he said.

Democratic Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald said the bills are not aimed at limiting the rights of residents, and instead cast the bills as an opportunity to address a "gun violence epidemic" in the country. He pointed specifically to the 10-round limit as a request that came from parents of children who died in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

"Meeting the families of Sandy Hook was one of the most moving experiences of my 22 years of public service," Greenwald said. "For these families, the single most important piece of legislation we could fight for is lowering magazine capacity."

Scott Perry, of Toms River, said that change would effectively turn weapons into "paperweights" since smaller-capacity magazines might not be readily available. He also said he's worried that the seizure of firearms from someone deemed a threat because of mental illness could lead to people not seeking help for fear of their weapons being taken away.

Tracy Keegan, a mother from Summit, recounted how years ago in Hoboken, someone pointed a gun at her and threatened to shoot. She said she reported the incident to police and later found out the person had obtained guns at out-of-state gun shows and had mental illness. She said background check legislation under consideration could have prevented it.

"Enacting common sense gun legislation isn't going to ruin anyone's life or kill anyone. But not enacting it might," Keegan said.

If approved, the legislation goes next to the Democrat-led Assembly. It also must go to the Senate.

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