One of the hallmarks of a free and strong society is its ability to protect its citizens from dangers both foreign and domestic. New Jersey continues to face such a challenge with respect to how we deal with gun violence in our communities. We must address the flow of illegal weapons into the hands of violent predators. Far too many innocent men, women and children have been hurt or killed due to illegal gun activity. Nationally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the vast majority of the approximately 12,000 annual gun murders and 66,000 nonfatal shootings are committed by people who have no legal right to a gun. By not addressing this problem now, more unlawful weapons will enter our streets and our schools. We must find common ground if we are to tackle this issue effectively, because the stakes are too high if we do not.
Every gun starts out as a legally manufactured product, but the ATF points to three common ways guns move from legal distribution channels to the criminal market:
- Corrupt federally licensed gun dealers: Federally licensed gun dealers send more guns to the criminal market than any other single source. Corrupt dealers frequently have high numbers of missing guns, in many cases because they’re selling guns “off the books” to private sellers and criminals. In 2005, the ATF examined 3,083 gun dealers nationwide and found 12,274 “missing” firearms.
- Straw purchasing: It is the most common way criminals get guns, accounting for almost 50 percent of trafficking investigations. A straw purchaser is someone with a clean record who buys guns on behalf of someone legally prohibited from possessing guns.
- Gun shows and private gun sales: A loophole in New Jersey’s law allows unlicensed or “private” sellers, many of whom work out of gun shows, to lawfully sell or transfer guns without conducting a criminal background check. The two Columbine High School shooters recruited friends to buy guns for them at Colorado gun shows.
New Jersey has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. However, due to weaker gun laws in other states, we are leaving ourselves vulnerable to gun violence. According to the ATF, 75 percent of guns recovered in New Jersey crimes originate from outside the state. Also, according to ATF statistics, in 2010 Virginia supplied 171 New Jersey crime guns, and another 124 came all the way from Florida. This gun pipeline leads to some sobering outcomes. Therefore, action in this area is a moral, civic and social imperative if we are to reclaim the public safety of our state.
I have worked to develop a series of proposals to stem the illegal gun trade. My proposals will give law enforcement and the judiciary enhanced tools to investigate and prosecute gun traffickers, as well as those who enable their destructive practices, all the while protecting and respecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners. The proposals are pragmatic and represent ideas that gun control advocates and responsible gun owners have supported and endorsed.
- Enhance penalties for the failure to report lost or stolen firearms subsequently used in a crime: Under current New Jersey law, the legal owner of a gun who fails to report it lost or stolen within 36 hours is subject to a civil penalty of not less than $500 for the first offense and $1,000 for each subsequent offense. My proposal would add a fourth-degree criminal penalty if the gun is subsequently used in the commission of a crime. This measure will help law enforcement efforts keep guns out of the criminal hands.
- Clarify that vehicles used in firearms trafficking are subject to seizure and forfeiture: My proposal would clarify state law to ensure that any motor vehicle that is used to transport, ship or bring any firearm into New Jersey for the purpose of unlawfully selling, transferring or giving that firearm to another is subject to seizure and forfeiture.
- Subject firearms trafficking to the No Early Release Act: My proposal enhances the penalties for firearm trafficking by making a violator serve 85 percent of the term of incarceration imposed by the court before becoming eligible for parole.
- Crack down on corrupt gun dealers: Nationally, nearly 60 percent of the guns used in a crime are traced back to a small number, 1.2 percent, of crooked gun dealers, according to ATF statistics. My proposal borrows from bipartisan federal legislation, which would empower law enforcement to impose greater restrictions, wage tougher financial penalties, and suspend or revoke the license of any New Jersey gun dealer who knowingly sells to traffickers or straw purchasers. Law enforcement would be given the authority to identify and impose special restrictions on high-risk New Jersey gun dealers. To prevent high-risk dealers from supplying guns to traffickers or straw purchasers, law enforcement would be able to continue to impose conditions on them such as increased inspections, inventory checks and reconciliation, and require that the dealer not complete firearms sales until the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) informs the dealer that they may proceed with the sale, as provided by statute.
The overwhelming majority of licensed gun dealers are responsible and law-abiding business people. This bill goes after the outliers who are contributing to the cycle of violence that puts our children and families at risk. For those dealers suspected of corrupt practices, the proposal would protect their rights of due process before their licenses are revoked. This legislation would put corrupt gun dealers out of business, create deterrents to engaging in these behaviors, and keep our neighborhoods safe from gun violence.
- Require the submission of mental health records to the NICS. The Department of Justice established the system for federally licensed gun dealers to conduct background checks on prospective gun purchasers. The NICS obtains or accesses records from the state police, local police and other agencies to determine if the prospective gun purchaser is prohibited from owning a firearm. The NICS relies on states to submit this information. As a result, if the states do not submit the information, the database will have incomplete or inaccurate records, and allow some individuals to buy guns who should be prohibited. New Jersey has begun the process of implementing an electronic system to submit mental health records to the NICS, but submission of these records is not mandatory under current state law. The provisions of this bill would make the submission mandatory.
Safeguarding our communities is a responsibility that we must all share, and developing more responsible gun laws is just one aspect of this responsibility. It also will take a commitment to address the social and economic factors that feed this violence and force us to look at ourselves in the mirror, as we have the difficult conversations necessary to effect real change.
Together, New Jerseyans have faced great challenges. Let us resolve to have the courage to affirm in a unified voice, once again, that in the wake of escalating gun violence in our communities, we have had enough.