TRENTON – After a period of relative inactivity on the legislative front, there was a flurry of business conducted in just a few days inside the Statehouse.
There were so many bill signings announced – 53 over three days – that it would have been easy to forget that technically the governor was on vacation this week.
Of the 53 bill signings announced during a 72-hour period, 10 of them dealt with some aspect of gun violence.
There were so many proposals passed that there was room for lawmakers on both sides of the aisles as well as Gov. Chris Christie to take credit for trying to deal with one of the more emotional constitutional issues in America: Balancing the right to bear arms with the need for people to be safe.
Let’s look at some of the wide range of topics the firearms legislation dealt with:
*Increasing penalties for transferring a gun to a minor;
*Declaring gun violence a public health crisis and setting up a commission to study it;
*Allowing seizures of vehicles used in gun crimes;
*Disqualifying people on the Terror Watch List from obtaining guns;
*Requiring submission of some mental health records to a criminal background check system;
*And ensuring some firearms records are exempt from the Open Public Records law.
GOP lawmakers praised that last item.
“The new law has nothing to do with gun control, but with protecting law-abiding citizens and ensuring their safety,” said Assemblyman Ron Dancer, who co-sponsored the law with colleagues Anthony M. Bucco, Alison McHose and Jay Webber.
“It is quite possible that citizens can be targeted by thieves, as could victims of domestic violence who possess a firearm to defend themselves. This law removes the legal ambiguity in the current regulation and respects that releasing such information must have a legitimate purpose.”
Democrats had praise for other bills, probably none more so than the bill that declared the escalation of firearms crimes a public health crisis.
“When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies violence as a serious health problem affecting our communities then this warrants a good look at it in New Jersey as a public health epidemic,” said Assemblyman Joe Cryan, who co-sponsored that bill along with Albert Coutinho, Reed Gusciora, Cleopatra Tucker, Charles Mainor, Annette Quijano and Shavonda E. Sumter.
Christie, in announcing the bills that were signed, had comments on one in particular.
Regarding the Terror Watch List bill, he cautioned that there is a need to strengthen national security without undermining individuals’ liberty.
“I believe that federal elected officials must continue to ensure that federal law enforcement and intelligence gathering entities constantly strive to improve the levels of accuracy and reliability in terrorist screening databases.”
Christie had set up a task force early this year to examine various aspects of violence, and some of these bills came out of that work.
But gun laws are a divisive political issue. While there was a great deal of praise for the bills that were passed, there was criticism raised about some major proposals still awaiting action.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver said that “We welcome Gov. Christie’s actions in favor of stricter gun control for New Jersey. I hope national Republicans take notice. After all, these Democratic bills will help combat gun violence and make our streets safer, yet more certainly needs to be done…”
Two bills, in particular, await a decision. Senate President Steve Sweeney’s overhaul of permitting processes awaits action, as does a bill that would require law enforcement to report firearms information to an interjurisdictional electronic database.
There were other measures signed into law this week as well. Here is a sampling:
*A law to jettison outdated and offensive language when referring to the mental capacity of someone;
*Laws to approve funding for various environmental infrastructure and flood-control projects;
*Enhancing some penalties in animal cruelty cases;
*Appropriating $715 million for higher-education projects under the bond act;
*And increasing fines for motorists who won’t keep to the right except when passing.
On another front, the Health Department announced that a third facility – in Woodbridge – has been issued a permit for medical marijuana.
Once that facility is up and running there will be one operational in each geographical region of the state. There is one in Egg Harbor Township in the south that is expected to begin dispensing marijuana in September, and the first one approved is in the north, in Montclair.
The program will eventually have six facilities in operation, although critics continually decry what they say is the slow pace of the effort as well as the number of regulations in place and the opposition from many towns in the form of zoning regulations.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver spearheaded a call this week for legislation that would allow an employee to earn one hour of sick time for every 30 hours of work.
The lack of unpaid sick days hurts women and the working poor disproportionately, said Oliver and representatives from labor unions.
“Here we are a couple of decades after the 1920s with women still having to break through legislatively to enact laws that are significant to women and families,” Oliver said.
However, as expected, business groups pushed back. The N.J. Business and Industry Association, for one, said it would hurt smaller business owners in particular.
“The legislation proposed in New Jersey would hit small businesses the hardest, because it would apply to all businesses regardless of size. And if enacted, it would be another mandate on New Jersey businesses that their competitors in most other states do not have to contend with,” said NJBIA Senior Vice President Melanie Willoughby.