TRENTON — An overflow crowd of gun-rights advocates clashed with Democratic lawmakers today during a raucous seven-hour hearing as an Assembly committee approved 20 bills that further restrict access to firearms and ammunition.
The Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee approved the laundry list of measures despite some outbursts from a throng dotted with NRA baseball caps, camouflage clothing and jackets featuring a coiled rattlesnake from the Revolutionary-era flag. At least two in the audience were ejected.
The lengthy hearing marked the opening round of what promises to be an election-year battle in New Jersey. Democrats have been critical of Gov. Chris Christie’s reticence on gun control, and are well aware that statewide polls that show a majority of residents favor more stringent measures in the wake of the massacre in Sandy Hook, Conn., that left 20 elementary school children dead.
“This plan … is surely a knee-jerk reaction that doesn’t even come close to touching the real issue that’s behind the death and destruction,” said Helene Henkel, a Middletown resident active in conservative causes. “Let’s not put more bogus laws on the books. We should be cleaning up the books.”
Gun-rights advocates turned out by the hundreds to confront the Democrat-led committee, packing the hearing room and booing when they thought they weren’t being taken seriously. The crowd also spilled out of a room intended for the overflow, and many gathered outside the Statehouse to protest.
But the show of force did not sway Democrats, who voted to send the bills to the full Assembly for a vote next week. Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said she was working to shepherd the bills through her chamber, although it was not clear whether the Senate will take up all the measures.
The legislation, intended bolster New Jersey’s strict gun laws, ranged from reducing the maximum capacity of magazines from 15 to 10 (A1329) to a symbolic resolution urging Congress to enact more gun-control measures (A3797).
“Whether it’s the streets of New Jersey communities, a movie theater in Colorado or an elementary school in Connecticut, enough is enough is enough,” said the committee chairman, Charles Mainor (D-Hudson). “No more talk. It’s time for action.”
Other bills would require ammunition sales to be conducted in person (A3645), disqualify those included on the federal terrorist watch list from buying guns (A3687) and require the seizure of guns from people who mental health professional deem a threat to themselves or others (A3754).
Republicans generally voted against the measures, although Assemblyman Sean Kean (R-Monmouth) supported several. Conversely, most Democrats voted in favor of the measures. Yet splitting with his colleagues, Assemblyman Nelson Albano (D-Cumberland) joined Republicans to vote against most of the bills.
The committee unanimously approved one bill both sides agreed on — the codification of regulations banning the public release of gun owners’ information (A3788), a response to a controversial move by a Westchester County, N.Y., newspaper to publish a map of the homes of gun owners.
The crowd grew rowdy early in the day, reflecting frustration and the sense that gun-rights advocates were being shown less courtesy. Nevertheless, dozens testified — often passionately and peppered with applause from the audience.
Nicholas Purpura, a chaplain and tea party activist from Wall, said the measures would punish law-abiding New Jerseyans at the expense of criminals, who wouldn’t heed the law anyway.
“You’re tying our hands,” Purpura said, adding that the committee members were “hypocrites” who should be removed from office.
“You are guilty,” he said. “The blood of the innocent people and the children is on your hands.”
But while gun-rights advocates far outnumbered those in favor of more stringent measures, some reminded the audience that polling showed that was not the case throughout the state.
“I want to remind everyone this is a loud crowd behind us, but there’s lots of polling out there that shows this is representative of a tiny minority of New Jerseyans,” said Bryan Miller, executive director of Heeding God’s Call, which he described as a faith-based, violence-prevention organization.
Democrats pointed to Republicans’ no votes and abstentions, especially on a bill to ban those on the terrorist watch list from buying guns. “This bill in my mind brings up memories of the 1950s and Hollywood and the witch hunt that went on with the people regarding communism,” said Alison Littell McHose (R-Sussex).
Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union) said he was “flabbergasted” by McHose’s comment. “To say there’s a conspiracy, there’s McCarthyism, there’s other things — you’ve got to be kidding me,” Cryan said.