In April, following a spate of mass shootings in Colorado and Georgia, Governor Phil Murphy announced in New Jersey’s largest city that he intended to roll out a new round of gun control measures. As New Jersey already has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation, Insider NJ spoke with elected officials whose constituents represent urban, suburban, and rural parts of the state for their assessments of the governor’s proposals. All three individuals interviewed were unsatisfied, but for different reasons and suggested different approaches to handling gun violence. For Senator Ronald Rice, Trenton needed to invest more in urban youth, and create safer environments in the cities which would, in turn, lower crime and raise the quality of life. For Senator Michael Doherty, the governor’s proposals are a needless distraction targeting law-abiding gun owners while turning attention away from the administration’s failure to manage state services, including unemployment. For Old Bridge Councilman Mark Razzoli, the governor was hamstringing law enforcement, leading to a rise in crime, while politicizing the victims of gun violence.
The gun control proposals include, among other provisions, raising the age to purchase a long arm from 18 to 21, creating an electronic database of ammunition sales, banning .50 caliber weapons, regulating school shooter drills, and setting aside another $10 million for violence intervention funding, $2 million for Rutgers to study gun violence, promoting microstamping technology for ammunition, requiring residents who move to New Jersey to register weapons they purchased in other states, establishing a “Smart Gun Commission”, and holding gun manufacturers liable for “public harm caused.”
Senator Ronald L. Rice (D) has represented LD-28 for the last 35 years. He said that while he would likely support most of the proposals, Trenton was missing the bigger picture because it was unwilling or unable to have the necessary conversations. Part of the reason why Trenton was failing to address the root causes of urban gun crime, Rice said, was because the leadership has not been consulting the voices from those cities.
“The concerns we always have in the community are automatic weapons and small arms that young people are getting,” Rice said. “To some of them, they’re a toy. I’ve always argued that we need education about guns and why you shouldn’t have or possess them in certain circumstances, and we need something for the young people in the urban communities to do and we don’t want to address that. It requires a lot of money to build infrastructures for after school playgrounds and computers kids can occupy themselves with. Even in this space they can learn more about guns just by using computers to find the pros and cons. As always, they are occupied with the feel-good stuff, and we need to address that.”
While the Murphy administration has set its sights on large, expensive, and uncommon weapons such as .50 caliber arms, Rice said, “The majority of our suicides are committed by people with small arms, pistols. It’s not just for urban communities, but it is problematic for wealthier communities with people taking their lives by suicide. Anything that can protect our society without violating our rights, I support. I have always disagreed with the NRA interpretation of the Second Amendment, because the Second Amendment was really talking about the militia in that period of time and today our militia is the National Guard. So, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a right to bear arms, but I don’t think it should be interpreted the way the NRA interprets it. We can regulate and we need to regulate. The problem is that money continues to get in the way and folks don’t want to take the stance that needs to be taken to fight back against those extremists of the NRA or the extremes of gun ownership.”
Rice was dismissive of the funding which would go towards studies. “I’m a Vietnam veteran and a former cop, so I’m familiar with guns and their usage, calibers you need and don’t need, now they are making ghost guns, which means that anyone can put them together.” Ghost guns refer to kit weapons which do not have serial numbers, an issue the Biden administration has brought up as a matter of attention in combatting gun violence. “One thing about young people, I don’t care which community you live in, our young people are geniuses in putting things together like that and taking things apart. So if they get their hands on kits you’re going to have a lot more guns out there. I don’t need a major study about gun violence in the urban community. We know what our problems are: job opportunities, quality education, afterschool activities for kids. They shouldn’t be on the corner and the teachers parked in the school playground, they should be in the playground with the teachers parked on the streets. But you won’t get teachers to park on the streets until you make the streets safe. You’re not going to make the streets safe until you get kids in the playgrounds where they aren’t playing with guns. So, we know what the problems are. I’d like to see the money spent elsewhere, on things like that. I’ll support the governor on some of these issues when I see them.”
Rice blamed a breakdown in communication among legislators from various areas in the state for the failure to understand the nature of the challenges his constituents face. “I know the needs and I don’t need studies for them. Maybe other people need them, but they don’t come from my background, they don’t live in my cities, they don’t know about the gangs the way they should and maybe that’s what the problem is. Nobody’s talking to people like me and other folks in my position, particularly from the urban and suburban borders of our communities about what we think the needs are.”
Additionally, Rice felt that the leadership in the state was taking Democrats for granted, issuing directives while not necessarily calling for the input of urban leaders. “You throw something out there, and say you shouldn’t have an elephant gun, and say ‘you should support that, you’re a Democrat,’ well, I support that but you’re not asking what I need! Ask me what I know, OK? If I had the majority of gun violence in my cities, and I live there and don’t just represent it, then maybe somebody should be talking to me after 35-plus years in government. I’ve been in the city since 1955, I’m a former cop, my background is criminal justice administration and planning academically, I’ve taught courses, I’m a Vietnam veteran of the Marine Corps, 3rd Recon, and there are others in the legislature like me, but there are others in the city like us, too. The mayors know what their needs are, but we aren’t having those conversations.”
The proposals coming from the governor’s office did not seem to impress the veteran senator who was ardent that the government should focus on broader issues, such as disincentivizing youth from entering into gangs, rather than splitting hairs on nuanced elements of firearms. “I’ve always argued that our first obligation is to deter negative things from happening. We don’t write laws to hurt people but deter. Where we can’t prevent or do the kinds of things we should be doing–if people don’t want to adapt to society’s norms and create these subcultures like gangs with their own subcultural values, from a sociological perspective–then you have institutions, penalties, et cetera. But we aren’t doing enough. I’ve got young people growing up where the cities are growing like crazy, but I still can’t get these young adults into apprenticeship programs in large numbers. I still can’t get them to get the work done. I’ve always said I could clean up Newark with the right kind of resources and I could enforce rules and laws, but if you don’t have support from the state and federal government to do that—and the mindset in the legislature collectively to understand these issues—it’s not going to get done.”
For Rice, one of the vexing behaviors he observed in Trenton was that there were large amounts of money for programs when there was will, but he felt that those resources were not being dedicated to where the causes of violence, be it gun-related or otherwise, could be lessened. “There is a direct relationship between violence, gun violence, mental health, broken families, homelessness, lack of employment, things like that—and I’m sure the governor and my colleagues understand that. They don’t like to talk about it, because when you talk about it, you’re talking about significant dollars. When COVID-19 hit us, we’re talking about $14.2 billion in tax incentives and credits to keep businesses around, we talk about $9.9 billion in bonding to assist small businesses, landlords, and tenants, all the right things to do. But we’re never talking about significant numbers or anything close—because we don’t need that much—to help urban mayors retrofit pools in recreation facilities, or build new ones. We never talk about these kids. They’re growing up in these environments, and you’re a product of your environment. So, if all you see is violence, people getting shot, families breaking up, then that’s what you learn. It’s a process. If you see young people growing up, going into playgrounds, they go to school, graduate, go to work, and that’s what they think people do, then that becomes the norm. We don’t have these kinds of conversations.”
Despite Rice’s criticism of the Murphy administration, he nevertheless felt that, in general, the state was trending positively. He credited that, in part, to the legislative black caucus holding firm and resolving that it would not be taken for granted. “I believe this administration is moving in the right direction. I’m working with the Speaker in particular and the Senate President in terms of criminal justice reform, and trying to get it right. They’re doing that because the legislative black caucus has strengthened itself over the years and grown. I was adamant, as the chair, about the fact that we can’t say yes to everything you want without you understanding the significance of the substantive things that we need as well. We are tired of them saying no, so we’re starting to push back, and in the process of pushing back and working with our civil rights coalition members, will also educate a lot of our colleagues. Many still don’t get it and sometimes the leadership gets offended with us because they think because we’re chairs of committees and things like that, that we have to rubber stamp things, even vote against or not promulgate things we care about as a black caucus, but we will push beyond that.”
In a case echoing the ill-advised king, where the advisors and ministers were to blame, Rice ascribed much of the state’s failures not to the governor himself, but those who surround him. “The administration is making some missteps, and I’ve said that to the governor on more than one occasion. But that’s not because the governor’s heart is not in it. I’ve said publicly more than once and to the governor—people get offended but I don’t care who I offend—it’s these people around him. When he listens to us, he says let’s get it done, but then he takes it back to his team and they give him the politics of who may not like it, who will run against it, these are the polls, and those are the consultants around him as well as some of the inhouse people. We don’t have the kinds of conversations that I think we should have as legislators and in particular the black caucus about what the needs are and what we do from there. Yes, he gets it, he is doing a lot better than the previous administrations, but it’s not enough from our perspective.”
Rice expressed his support for Murphy and his bid for re-election, but emphasized his support would not come wholly unconditionally. “I will also continue to be vocal and push him. I will also work with the senate president. We have a real interesting relationship over the years since he became the president. We respect each other, we work together, but I’m still going to hold them accountable about our concerns on gun control, criminal justice reform, and what it means to us. The speaker gets it, I think a lot better than the senate side does, maybe because our members are over there pushing collectively. There is work to be done in terms of communicating better, educating each other. I don’t claim to know much about the beach or agricultural community, but the point is that I rely on Senator Doherty and those guys to tell me what we need in those communities. I rely on their integrity, and I will support that. But if they don’t know about the urban areas and don’t want to know, then rely on me to tell you the truth about housing and recreation and the things we need.”
For a quarter century, Rice felt that the state’s government has degraded in terms of communicating and delivering, and the newest crop of gun proposals was another biproduct of that. “We used to [communicate] under the Florio administration, but since then we haven’t done anything but play politics. It’s just rhetoric, apple pie feel-good type legislation, and that’s why it is taking so long to grow these cities back. You build these cities, then we can have a New Jersey we can all be proud of again. I’m not that happy with New Jersey right now.”
Senator Michael Doherty (R) represents LD-23 and is a former US army officer and West Point graduate. LD-23 is a largely rural constituency and Doherty feels that Governor Murphy’s proposed legislation is a smokescreen for other issues from which he is attempting to distract residents. “I think Governor Murphy is playing to his base. New Jersey has the second strictest gun control laws in the country and the third lowest rate of gun deaths in the country according to the Giffords Law Center. It’s totally unnecessary. New Jersey already has extremely strict gun laws and he is just showing he has no respect for the constitution. The Second Amendment is very clear. Due to the rural and suburban nature of much of my district, my constituents can’t always rely on the police showing up immediately. Sometimes it takes a while. Many of my towns are covered by state police. There have been instances of home invasion where the police just can’t show up in time due to the expanse of my district. I don’t believe Governor Murphy appreciates the way of life we have here and what is required to protect your family, business, and we just don’t have police around the corner like he may have in his home town.”
When asked what the most appropriate course of action for the governor would be to take on gun violence, Doherty was clear. “I think he should enforce the law.” He then said that the governor was selective about his enforcement of the law regarding other matters. “When it comes to illegal immigrants, he’s not going to enforce the law, but encourage people to break the federal law. He seems to pick and choose which laws he wants to enforce. Let’s face it, most of the gun crimes are committed by those who are already violating the gun laws. They are not respecting the laws. We have heard this over and over again.”
For Doherty, the proposals would not address the causes of gun crime and he felt that the legislation would be as punitive for the law-abiding as it would be ineffective for the law-breakers. “The people he is going to punish are already following the laws. The licensed, law-abiding gun owner is not the problem. It is the crime that occurs in some of the urban areas where these are people who have not registered or licensed their guns. They have illegal handguns in their possession. I just think it is a way to score some points with his base.”
Like Rice, Doherty felt that the governor would serve the state better by focusing on other matters. “He has killed tens of thousands of small businesses here in New Jersey. He has a motor vehicle commission that does not perform like it is supposed to, making seniors stand for hours on end, so I think he is trying to deflect from some of those issues.”
In 2018, Governor Murphy signed new gun control measures into law, such as A2761, which banned magazines that carried more than 10 rounds. Previously, 15 round magazines were the maximum legal limit in New Jersey. According to a New Jersey State Police spokesman who spoke to NJ.com in a 2019 article, not a single 15-round magazine had been turned over to the police.
“It has had zero impact and all it does is inconvenience law abiding gun owners,” Doherty said of the previous Murphy-era gun legislation. “People who argue that going from 15 round magazines to 10 is going to prevent gun crimes from occurring, or minimize the severity of gun crimes, just doesn’t understand how to change magazines. It takes only a second to drop a magazine and slap another into a gun. Anyone who has ever fired a gun knows that. It just shows the level of ignorance.”
As far as holding gun manufacturers liable or accountable for “public harm” caused, Doherty dismissed it as more onerous and pointless grandstanding. “This is just going to lead to higher costs for people who want to protect themselves and their families. Any kind of damages awarded are just going to be passed on to law abiding gun owners. Like I said, New Jersey already has the second strictest laws in the country. Governor Murphy runs the government, he controls the attorney general and the law enforcement apparatus, and we already have the third lowest homicide rate with guns in the country. I think he’s just playing to his base for his future ambitions and trying to cover up his epic failures at motor vehicles, and epic failure mismanaging the unemployment office.”
Echoing his frustration with the administration’s handling of other governmental matters, Doherty complained that the Murphy administration had dropped the ball on residents seeking unemployment benefits and was passing the job onto legislative staff offices. “He should really focus on addressing problems with unemployment. He has legislative offices handling his executive branch duties. It’s pretty outrageous that we, a separate branch of government, are helping constituents almost full-time on unemployment issues because of his failures. So, before he goes into new areas, like punishing law-abiding gun owners, he ought to fix what he controls right now. His mismanagement of the unemployment office is atrocious,” Doherty continued. “There are still people who haven’t been paid. Here we are over a year into the coronavirus situation and still people haven’t been paid! This goes on the Murphy administration. We actually passed legislation to allow the governor to bring in employees from other areas of state government to help out. And the answer was, ‘well, it takes a lot of time to train these people’ but it’s OK to have legislators’ staff working full-time to process unemployment claims—even though it’s an executive branch function. We offered him the opportunity to work on this situation, but he decided not to take that opportunity.”
Mark Razzoli, an Old Bridge Councilman and former Democrat, looked at the issue from his experience
as a police officer. “I was 26 years in law enforcement, I worked narcotics, street crime, and retired as a detective. I worked a lot of shooting cases, armed robberies, you name it, I handled it. Here’s the reality. The guy selling a gun on the corner of Carteret and Pacific Avenue is not going to ask anyone if they have a criminal record, about their mental health, and if they have a gun permit. For the governor it is all showmanship, taking attention away from the nursing homes, the vaccine rollout, the lack of plans to reopen the schools, and New Jersey’s economy because of his restrictions.”
Like Doherty, Razzoli said that New Jersey already has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. “I think if any law abiding American can pass the background check and meet the qualifications, then they have a right to own a weapon. One thing I can tell you from working shooting cases and interrogating people who have done shootings, is that evil kills people, not guns. If you get a determined person who wants to create carnage, he or she is going to. It is disturbing that we have elected officials who will race to the podium to politicize people being murdered from gun violence. Those are the same people who are ignoring gun violence in urban areas where you see a significant increase over the last year or so.”
As for the nuts and bolts of the governor’s proposals, Razzoli described it as, “Irrelevant, it’s window dressing. If you want to slow crime, you start by funding and supporting the police. Stop talking about removing qualified immunity. My response to removing qualified immunity is, would anyone want to be a doctor if he or she couldn’t obtain malpractice insurance? I think not. Criminals are becoming empowered and acting brazenly because of the climate, and we have elected officials who are helping them by passing legislation that is handcuffing the police instead of the criminals.”
Razzoli echoed Rice’s sentiments with respect to gangs and the larger factors which contribute to gun violence and urban crime in general. “I think people aren’t realizing that gangs, guns, and drugs go hand in hand. Properly funding law enforcement, where departments have a proactive narcotics or street crime unit—where they are out there getting guns off the street—that’s what’s important. Governor Murphy’s getting involved in gamesmanship where it’s all about the optics. Let’s stop restricting law enforcement and get back to good old-fashioned policing. He needs to be supporting the police by properly funding where they can increase these units. It’s no coincidence that gun violence, say in New York City, increased when they started downsizing those specialized units.”
For Razzoli, the governor’s approach is based on misunderstanding the root causes of gun crime—a sentiment expressed in one form or another by all three of the officials interviewed.
Razzoli suggested that an anti-police atmosphere, including budgetary cuts, were key to the rise in violent crime and reversing this would give departments and agencies the ability to lower crime and get illegal weapons out of the hands of criminals. “I think it’s really important for people to understand that when a bad person wants to get a gun, they’re going to get a gun. These bills affect law-abiding American citizens. That’s not preventing crime.” Razzoli did not think that regular citizens carrying guns would necessarily deter or reduce crime, however. “If people have a carry permit, if there’s something that happens in front of them, that doesn’t mean they are going to intervene. Let’s face reality, unless you’re properly trained to handle certain situations, people are going to freeze. There are arguments on both sides, but the reality is that these guns bills that Phil Murphy is involved with are all optics.”
Carrying permits are almost impossible for ordinary New Jersey residents to obtain as it is, and Razzoli would rather that Trenton and local governments empower street crime units to best handle gun crime. “Those specialized units are worth the investment. They are what takes the guns off the streets. Government should be handcuffing criminals, not the police. You’re going to see a surge of crime if elected officials continue to go after qualified immunity. By not funding and supporting law enforcement, you’re asking for a surge in crime, how can they do their job today? As an elected official, I don’t care what level of government you’re on, your number one priority is public safety, to protect the community. Last time I checked, that’s what drives your local economy. These gun laws that the governor is pushing for is a great way to remove the attention from everything else going on.”
According to reports, the overwhelming number of weapons employed in New Jersey crimes originate from outside the Garden State’s own borders. “It was always known that guns were being funneled into New Jersey from other states, so when you’re handcuffing law enforcement, you don’t have those stops like you used to have when you’d get intelligence. Not everyone is perfect, there are good and bad in every profession, unfortunately, but you can’t handcuff law enforcement because of the acts of a bad few.”
While some New Jerseyans will cheer or oppose the bills simply based on their party labels, the governor risks appearing opportunistic rather than pragmatic or wise among his own base if he fails to build an understanding across the different communities affected by gun legislation. When bipartisan concerns over the essence of legislation appear, then the governor—a self-styled champion of New Jersey progressives—would do well to listen. To do otherwise may be seen, universally, as politicizing tragedy and fostering legislation which is not seen as a priority in a time of state, national, and global crisis.